Is change coming to the beautiful game at last? by Muyiwa Adetiba

 

ROBBEN ISLAND, SOUTH AFRICA - DECEMBER 03:  FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter talks to the media during a press conference on December 3, 2009 in Robben Island, South Africa.  (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Last Saturday was the kind of day you’d want to stay at home.

Apart from the fact that it was wet, cool and therefore cosy, there were two major sporting events lined up for the day, not to mention the Canadian Grand Prix for the growing number of Formula One fans. There was the female Tennis Final featuring Serena Williams, the black icon, in the afternoon. And there was the UEFA Champion’s League Final featuring Barcelona, the exponent of attractive soccer in the evening. I missed last year’s final due to circumstances totally beyond my control.

My senior brother was celebrating his 70th birthday at the Civic Centre and I couldn’t leave even if I wanted to. This didn’t stop me from envying those who left mid-way to catch the match though. My only consolation was that my brother was also missing the match because I know he would have wanted to be in front of his TV possibly with a glass of beer for company. Missing this year’s final would have made it two in a row and it almost happened. There was a wedding I couldn’t get out of which threatened my pleasure and therefore peace. I tried to get my son to go with his mum but he politely declined and gently reminded me it was I who signed the dotted lines. This was obviously a bad time but it was ‘for better for worse, for good time and bad time’, he said. Earlier, friends had counselled that I arrange for the driver to come for madam which would then free me to make a flying stop-over to the venue. But I knew it would not fly with missus.

So I negotiated. I would miss the tennis final on the condition that we would be back for the Champion’s League Final. Although she agreed, I knew a lot would depend on how the party turned out. Fortunately, the table we sat at had close male friends who also wanted to watch the match. Our voices drowned the female voices and in a game of numbers, the majority wins sometimes as it did last Saturday.

It is estimated that over a billion people watched the final on TV from all over the world. I don’t think any other regional sporting event could pull that kind on figure. Such is the allure and power of soccer which Pele, its most enduring ambassador, dubbed ‘the beautiful game’. But the beautiful game does have its ugly side. Although FIFA, the body that organises world football, has the banner ‘Fair play Please’ flying at every major soccer tournament, almost no one—from the fans to the administrators—respects that injunction. The fans would do anything permissible—legal or illegal— to constitute the 12 man or even the 13 man wherever possible. They would sing, shout, heckle and hurl racial abuses, all to intimidate the opponent. Managers and coaches have been known to advice their players on rough tactics including ‘taking out’ dangerous players from the other camp. The Brazilian Ronaldo was said to have been drugged at a World Cup Final. The players themselves ‘wind’ temperamental opponents up including head butting and elbow nudging. Then there was the ‘hand of God’ by Maradona and Henry, two of the game’s leading ambassadors. All is fair in war and soccer it seems.

This beautiful game gets uglier when clubs, managers and even the footballers ‘throw’ the game for financial gains or league positions. Or when under hand deals are made in the purchase and sale of players. Financial Fair Play is another slogan that is often quoted and often, if not always, side-tracked. The business side of football management has become ugly, seedy and ruthless. It is a world inhabited by gamblers, blackmailers and white collar robbers.

Then the issue of who will host FIFA tournaments is another one that has been mired in under hand deals and corruption. The political and economic capital is so enormous that many leaders would want to cash in on it. And FIFA’s collegiate system makes it easy to identify the power brokers in the body for corrupt inducements.

The whole shady system has been crying for a change and for cleansing for quite a while. But the cartel running the system is stronger than the Mafioso and just as impenetrable. FIFA has been headed by only two people for as long as I can remember and we are talking about half a century or more. The same can be said for many of the continental leaders. So how can you reform a system when the sit-tight operators are not answerable to anybody?

I can understand why FIFA had had to be put itself above regional, racial and religious politics. Football administration is too powerful a tool and soccer too passionate a sport to be allowed to fall into the hands of manipulative leaders. But it is hypocritical for State FAs to take money from their governments and not be accountable to them. Again, I can understand the need for focus and the need to avoid legal distractions. But to say your decisions are not subject to legal interpretations is putting yourself above the law as the rest of us know it. It is also according yourself an infallibility that is inhuman. So it is inevitable that the cookie is bound to crumble at some point and the desire to sweep the crumbs under the carpet when it did crumble, did not catch anybody by surprise—FIFA had been opaque and impenetrable for too long.

The US and Swiss law enforcement agencies did the footballing world a lot of favour when they stepped in to say ‘enough is enough’; that no institution should be allowed to operate above the law especially when it seemed that the leaders of the system, unfazed by the barrage of criticisms against them, were set to ‘re-elect’ themselves. It was a sad day when Sepp Blatter stepped forward to re- contest even after the arrest of his lieutenants on allegations of corruption despite his announcement in 2011 that he would not put himself forward again. It was even sadder that he won so handily in spite of the sleaze and the embarrassment of the arrests.

His announcement four days later that he was stepping down because other football stakeholders were tired of his leadership was a relief. His ‘stepping aside’ can mean one thing. Change is possible. Even at FIFA.

 

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