FIFA has long been a sporting association more famous for their behind-closed-door attitude and corrupt values than supporting football growth around the world. As they look to move away from this image and clean up their worldwide reputation, a vital presidential election has just taken place to decide on a new leader (Gianni Infantino) to revive the Fédération Internationale de Football Association. What everybody involved in the game is asking, though, is will anything actually change? Will FIFA ever again become a totally clean and credible representative of football?
Look back to its roots, and you can find what FIFA was begun to achieve. Founded in 1904 by a number of European countries including France, Belgium and the Netherlands, FIFA was created to bring order to the increasing international fixtures. During the next decade it expanded to comprise Commonwealth countries and Spanish colonies. After a period without British involvement after World War One, the legendary FIFA President Jules Rimet began his record 33-year long stint in charge, building the organisation from small offices in Paris to encompass representatives from 85 countries, 73 more than when he began. Rimet personified everything good in a leader; he was a visionary, creating the very first World Cup in 1930, a socialist (he started a sports club in Paris called Red Star, which specifically accepted people of all classes) and a man of clean ethics (he made his living as a lawyer). He was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1956 after the success of the post-World War Two World Cups. Rimet built FIFA up from the ground; it was his work that had cemented the reputation of the association and the World Cup as the pinnacle of football.
Rimet was followed as President by two Englishmen, Arthur Drewry and Stanley Rous, both former British soldiers in WW1, who were instrumental in the success of the World Cups based in Europe, notably 1966, which obviously was the only World Cup so far to be hosted or won by England. These two presidents didn’t reform the organisation too much, instead continuing Rimet’s good work, expanding the World Cup to include all regions of the world. Rous particularly led FIFA in a very hands-on way, as he was an ex-referee who officiated the 1934 FA Cup Final and rewrote the Laws of the Game, helping make them easier to understand for players and officials alike.
After that, FIFA turned down a slippery slope. Brazilian João Havelange, son of an arms dealer who immigrated from Belgium, took charge after winning the 1974 presidential election with the support of the biggest player in the world at the time, Pelé. His privileged upbringing and background as a Law advisor for large companies in Brazil made him perfect for African, Asian and corrupt Europeans FA members, who wanted somebody who would realise the financial potential in the game. Havelange worked closely with Horst Dassler and Patrick Nally, an Adidas kingpin and a sports marketer respectively, who aided him in confirming Adidas and Coca-Cola, two of the world’s biggest companies, as sponsors of the World Cup. This commercial growth was obvious before Havelange’s reign, but only needed somebody with the heartlessness and mind for money to do it on a large scale. Four years earlier, during the 1970 World Cup Final, Pelé famously asked the referee to hold up the start of the game to tie his shoelaces. The cameras of broadcasters around the world panned down to Pelé’s boots, which were Puma branded, subconsciously convincing millions of young footballers to buy Puma to be like their hero.
Havelange certainly changed FIFA to start it in the direction it has become notorious for recently. He doubled the amount of sides in the World Cup during his reign, founded the Women’s, Under 20’s and Under 17’s World Cups, as well as the Confederations Cup. These tournaments on one hand made international football more accessible, but also made a hell of a lot in sponsorship and coverage rights money. A serious amount of the $440 million made in European television rights payments for the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cups was certainly pocketed by Havelange and his advisors, who rewarded their hard work with millions in their bank accounts. This was the birth of FIFA’s dangerously money-orientated and self-centered beliefs. After Havelange decided he finally had enough of presidency in 1998, he found himself a ready-made replacement, a man very close to him at the time, then-General Secretary Sepp Blatter. Blatter, who has aged considerably while in charge, has often painted the figure of a distrustful and secretive man, ambling around the Zurich offices, seeking to make safety pacts with his worldwide delegates.
He never seemed to be far from controversy for all the wrong reasons, including shocking comments on women’s football, John Terry, racism, homosexuality and match-fixing which all drew condemnation from football fans around the globe. This is a man who even unbelievably interrupted a minute’s silence for Nelson Mandela (who died the previous day) at the 2014 World Cup seedings. He was a callous, immoral dictator of an association supposed to represent football, only thinking of the personal gain of himself and his willingly corrupt cronies.
The Swiss has completely tarnished the reputation of FIFA for a generation of football fans, including myself, and left the sport without an honest and trustworthy organisation to head it. A lack of passion or connection with the game was the issue from the very beginning for Blatter, he never showed any remorse for problems concerning football; it was a case of diplomacy and politics for him. Sport should never have anything to do with politics; it was created to be a break from such serious matters. Think of all the young people from the Brazilian favelas, the African villages and the Caribbean islands, who are playing the game with any kind of ball they can find, using concrete walls as goals, carefree fun. Football is played out there on the streets, in the parks, not in the private offices in Zurich. What Blatter did to FIFA and football was an absolute mockery of what football has always stood for, what any sport has ever been played for.
That brings us to the present, where only yesterday the European candidate, Gianni Infantino (another Swiss, bad omens?) won a majority vote in the second round of voting, earning him the FIFA hot seat. In all honesty, Infantino, at least in my opinion, was the best of a bad bunch of candidates, all of whom have worked with Blatter in one capacity or another. Infantino has got the credentials to lead the diplomatic side of things; he is a law graduate, fluent in English, Italian, French, German and Spanish, with experience as the Secretary General of UEFA for nearly 7 years. This counts for nothing now, though, as he needs to sort out the mess at FIFA, as soon as possible. The game deserves a leader and an organisation that represent the feelings of fans, clubs and players alike. He must find out the reasons as to why corruption was allowed so openly as a culture, and stem their flow, ensuring they never are allowed to happen ever again.
Entrusting Infantino with this responsibility was much more well-advised than the pre-vote favourite of Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, who I personally would’ve steered well away from if a FIFA representative. Sheikh Salman is notoriously a wily, quietly powerful man who was another of Blatter’s pawns as Vice Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Disciplinary Committee. His position was certainly ironic, considering as a member of the inherently affluent Bahraini Royal Family, he has agreed with the state’s death penalty for serious criminals, open in the knowledge that hundreds of people in his country have been killed this way in the last few years. Human Rights activists, who I personally believe we should all be, have accused the Sheikh of “complicity in crimes against humanity”. In 2011, his Bahraini sports committee allegedly imprisoned and tortured around 150 athletes of his own nationality for joining in pro-democracy protests. Is this the kind of leader than a supposedly forward-thinking, changing organisation needed? I think not.
Putting the failed candidates aside, Infantino will know he has a very tough job in the next few years. One thing everybody will want to know from him is why it took interception from the U.S Department of Justice and the Swiss Authorities to actually stop any more foul play happening. Corruption got so ingrained into everybody working there that they had the arrogance to think they would never be found out, but fortunately for us all they were. When added up, the nine FIFA officials arrested received bribes worth £65 million. It’s almost as if every single person involved in the FIFA ethics committee, specifically set up to stop any actions against the organisation’s clearly non-existent ethics, never turned up to any of their meetings, never did any work at all. Now that the outside world has interrupted their slumber, the ethics committee have finally been firing officials left, right and centre in an initiative to revive any integrity FIFA may have left.
For now, we can only wish Gianni Infantino the best of luck as the new de facto head of worldwide football, and hope that he does the right thing in the best interests of the game, taking whatever measures he sees necessary to take back FIFA for the game. He can by no means get close to the work done by Jules Rimet, for he never had to deal with commercial sponsorship, so many different voices or so many ingrained issues. What Infantino should do, though, is seriously assess where FIFA stands as an organisation. Does it want to focus on governing the organisation of International football? Does it want to be a commercial market for hundreds of millions of pounds from sponsors? Does it want to focus on rebuilding its reputation by seriously focusing on the game, by growing from grassroots upwards to make football more accessible? Right now for FIFA, there are far more questions than answers on Infantino’s mind which need addressing. If he wants FIFA to be trusted ever again, he definitely has a very tough task in his first four years of presidency, but it is achievable however bleak it may look right now. If he can clearly prove to us all, the fans, who FIFA are supposed to represent, that in the future the association will be cleared of its blemishes, he will have succeeded in his role.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!