FIFA candidates must heed past lessons

FIFA President Joseph Blatter. (Getty)

FIFA presidential candidates have a chance to enrich the debate on the way forward for the governance of the game - something that has been sorely lacking in recent years.

Now that a few candidates have thrown their hats into the ring, at least the next FIFA presidential election should generate a healthy debate, something which seems to be in short supply on the subject.


The European, and particularly the English, press go on and on about corruption scandals. There is much to applaud here. The most noble part of journalism is that which digs into stories and asks questions which make those in power uncomfortable. Moreover, corruption is clearly harmful, with corrosive effects on institutions and individuals.

But, in reference to the FIFA debate, what is often lacking is context.

Because the alleged corruption in football is shocking and indefensible. But it can also be seen as the wholly undesirable sub-product of the global success of the game. Here, as in so much of the FIFA fury, the lines of battle can be drawn back to 1974, when Brazil's Joao Havelange defeated Stanley Rous of England to take the presidency of FIFA outside Europe for the first time.

David Golblatt, in his interesting Futebol Nation – the story of Brazil through Soccer, identifies the style of what came next. "Havelange brought to the institution the unique imprimatur of Brazil's ruling elite: imperious cordiality, ruthless clientelistic politics and a self-serving blurring of the public and private realms, institutional and personal benefit. Havelange stepped down almost two decades ago, but business at FIFA is still conducted in the mould which he cast."

There is, though, an important distinction to be made. The activities of the Brazilian elite at home have often been aimed at obstructing change. This was not the case with FIFA, as Golblatt recognises. "Once in place," he writes, "he set about revolutionising FIFA, turning it from a tiny amateurish federation into one of the world's most powerful international organisations."

His campaign had been driven by the widespread discontent with the Euro-centric governance of the game. South America was ready for revolt after the 1966 World Cup, where it felt that its teams were given a raw deal. And it is worth noting that the tournament contained just one place for all of Asia and Africa combined.

The justification for this was that standards of play in these continents were too low – an argument torpedoed by North Korea's defeat of Italy. But it was a spurious line of thinking – for how could the less traditional nations develop if they were not allowed into the loop? These years may have been the great missed opportunity of African football. There was also unrest over the support Rous gave to apartheid South Africa, long after the country had been kicked out by the international Olympic movement.

This is an option which looked bad at the time and seems worse now, and shows that there are other types of corruption as well as the financial. Indeed, the Rous administration is responsible for the blackest page in FIFA's history: the decision to maintain the 1973 Chile-USSR World Cup play-off in Santiago Nacional stadium. This was shortly after General Pinochet's brutish coup, during which the stadium was used as a concentration camp. Thousands were imprisoned there, with mass torture and hundreds executed. To stage the game, remaining prisoners were transferred or released and the bloodstains were hurriedly cleaned. The Soviets, quite correctly, refused to travel and Chile took the pitch alone.

The time had clearly come to take the running of global football out of the hands of an absurd outdated Colonel Blimp. After World War II, Europe had more than half the FIFA membership. By 1974 it had less than a third. It was a post-colonial era, full of new, independent countries. The world had changed, and Rous was unable to change with it.

Havelange promised to double the size of the FIFA World Cup, from 16 to 32 teams, with more places for the developing world. He delivered. The tournament these days may be unwieldy, but given the number of nations who want to be present it is impossible to imagine anything smaller.

Havelange promised to set up World Cups at Under-20 and Under-17 levels, tournaments that could be staged in the developing world. He delivered. Young players have the chance to further their careers by tasting international competition, and nations are given the opportunity to invest in their footballing infrastructure. We may quibble about the way this has been done on a number of occasions, but the basic idea seems sound.

Havelange promised to 'sell a product called football'. He delivered. He needed commercial sponsors on board to finance some of his projects, particularly the new age-group World Cups. And so the game went corporate. We can protest that this has gone too far, but it is not an objection that the European, and particularly the English game, can make with a straight face.

All of this turned the game into a giant money-spinner. Some of those revenues are distributed around the world's football associations. This is all very well, but it can give rise to relations of dangerous dependence, with the smaller associations reliant on the money coming from the centre. Some of the cash, given the lack of checks and balances, allegedly drops into private pockets. This is clearly disastrous, but to attack the corruption without understanding the source is to miss an important part of the point.

The Rous-era FIFA did not suffer from this scale of (financial) corruption because the game did not generate anything like today's tempting sums. And the reason that Havelange was continually re-elected, and that his hand-picked successor Sepp Blatter is continually re-elected, is simple to understand; the majority of the world's associations outside Europe are happier now than they were before 1974.

Europe can cry 'corruption' all it likes, but if it wants to regain control it must form alliances and come up with an inclusive, global vision that offers something to those in other continents, who are already worried by the dominance of the UEFA Champions League. Perhaps one of the candidates in the next presidential elections will enrich the debate with a proposal that ticks these boxes.