Fifa Watch

Politics take the eye off the ball

Sepp Blatter
Blatter.jpg

There are increasing signs that, internationally and locally, the Fifa affair is being hijacked by politics, taking the eye off the ball that Fifa should be focused on.

Echoes of events surrounding the 1980 and 1984 Summer Olympics are also being evoked.

The debacle in which football’s international governing body is finding itself started off with a criminal investigation by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) into acts of money laundering and tax evasion.

Knowledge that all is not well as far as the affairs of Fifa are concerned, entered the public domain as early as 2006. In that year British journalist Andrew Jennings presented a BBC Panorama Investigation under the title “The Beautiful Bung: Corruption and the World Cup”.

Two books from his pen followed, Foul!: The Secret World of Fifa: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals in 2006 and Omerta: Sepp Blatter’s Fifa Organised Crime Family in April 2014.

It actually all started with a question Jennings put to then just re-elected Fifa president, Sepp Blatter, at a media conference in 2002: “Herr Blatter, have you ever taken a bribe?'”

Six weeks later Jennings was handed, what he, in an interview with the Washington Post, last week, called  “... a wonderful armful of documents” from senior Fifa officials. “And it ran from there. And it still does,” he said.

In 2009 he was approached by agents of the FBI’s Organised Crime Squad and the US’s Department of Justice Organised Crime and Racketeering to assist them with an investigation, he told London-based The Mail On Sunday. “They wanted me to help them nail Sepp Blatter and his Fifa rogues,” he said.

Eventually this would lead to the indictment of Chuck Blazer, the then general secretary of the regional football confederation in the Caribbean, Central and North America – known as Concacaf. In 2013 Blazer, a resident of New York, pleaded guilty to a number of charges including tax evasion, money laundering, racketeering and fraud.

Jennings told The Mail On Sunday: “Mr Blatter probably doesn’t realise he is heading an organised crime family. But it is a classic structure. He deploys the billions Fifa earns from the World Cup in barely audited multimillion dollar ‘development grants’.”

In his interview with The Washington Post, only two hours before Blatter announced his resignation as Fifa president, Jennings called Blatter “a dead man walking”.

And about Blatter and his inner circle he said: “I know that they are criminal scum, and I’ve known it for years. And that is a thoughtful summation. That is not an insult. That is not throwing about wild words.

“These scum have stolen the people’s sport. They’ve stolen it, the cynical thieving bastards. So, yes, it’s nice to see the fear on their faces.”

Politics take over

Although Blatter is said to have courted controversy from when he was first elected as Fifa president, he is also credited with at least one big achievement: making football less Eurocentric and more of a global game.

During his tenure, local football federations all over the world were supported with development programmes and the first World Cups in Africa and Asia were organised. Both the ‘globalisation’ of football and the ‘development programmes’ have come back to haunt him as well as the game.

It now emerges that the development programmes developed into covers and channels for illegal money and bribery – something that has also sucked South African football into a network of criminality around the 2010 World Cup tournament.

Only time and ever-expanding official investigations will reveal if South African role-players were, at best, naive ‘victims’ or active and possibly beneficiating participants. As the Jennings history illustrates, eventually the truth will out.

On the back of the global profile of the game, and especially the World Cup Finals, ever since the present furore erupted at the Fifa congress in Switzerland, geopolitical considerations have become more prominent. The fact that Russia is due to host the tournament in 2018, as well as the growing tensions between the USA and China, plays no mean role in this developing trend.

To me, having been a newspaper correspondent in Washington in 1979, when the Cold War was at its zenith and Russia invaded Afghanistan, it looks almost like a rerun of the build-up to the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

As the Carter administration set out to isolate the Soviet Union, the US led a boycott campaign, which in the end saw 65 countries not pitching for the games. An alternative Olympic Boycott Games was held in Philadelphia, USA.

The 1980 boycott also impacted on the 1984 Los Angeles games when the USSR and 13 of its allies chose to stay away and organise alternative events for various sport codes under the banner of the Friendship Games.

This time around the main rallying ‘issue’ for a boycott of the 2018 Fifa tournament is Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine, linked to a resurgence of the Cold War on a multitude of fronts. Interestingly enough, China, which boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games, has now come out on Russia’s side. But then Asia – and particularly the Chinese aspirations for being a world power – is one of the developing fronts of what some call Cold War II.

Some socialist media outlets, like Information Clearing House, even suggest that the whole “Fifa scandal is orchestrated by Washington as part of its “agenda of isolating Russia from the World”.

While this is certainly a bit of a stretch, they do probably have a case when pointing out that not a single person or institution has been prosecuted in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Some were “directly responsible for the explosion in toxic financial derivatives that made their executives multimillionaires, but which led to the global financial and economic meltdown in 2008”. 

As one report puts it: “... a number of the mega-banks in the West have pleaded guilty to felony charges and only suffered fines,” and: “... the money laundering and price-rigging by the ‘banks too big to jail’ dwarfs the alleged criminality at Fifa”.

The broader issues of criminal money laundering, bribery and the weaknesses in the governance of international sport, which has effectively grown into mega-corporate enterprises, should remain the focus without the distraction of geopolitical game playing.

Domestic front

On an obviously smaller scale, locally the issue of money transfers in connection with the Football World Cup 2010 in South Africa, has also become politicised.

Even in rightfully requesting the Hawks special investigative unit to investigate the matter, the Freedom Front Plus just could not resist the temptation to single out the new mayor of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, Danny Jordaan. The Democratic Alliance went on an obvious wide-ranging ‘fishing expedition’ with questions to the Minister of Sport and Recreation, Fikile Mbalula.

The minister himself could not refrain from drawing in the fight against “colonialism and imperialism”.

He might have done well to have taken a leaf out of the book of that seasoned old fox, Sepp Blatter, who in his announcement of his resignation finally acknowledged that there is a problem and also suggested pro-active steps to fix things.

 

by Piet Coetzer

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