On the afternoon of December 2, 2010, football changed. Sepp Blatter, president of the game’s global authority Fifa, opened envelopes to reveal that Russia and Qatar would host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. “I am a happy president,” he grimaced with apparent displeasure. “Look at the picture. I haven’t a very smiling face,” he admitted much later.
Elsewhere in Zurich, Fifa’s general secretary Jérôme Valcke was seen covering his face, lamenting, “This is the end of Fifa.” Both men understood that the all-male, 22-member executive committee’s choice for two autocracies would spark outrage. Vladimir Putin was not present for his moment suprême, presumably because he expected one of Russia’s western competitors to get the nod. He jumped straight on a plane to bask in glory in Switzerland.
With hindsight, that day was a red alert to the west: its institutions were being subverted. Soon, a series of scandals began unfurling that revealed Fifa to be even more corrupt than many had realised. Most of the executive-committee (Exco) members who voted in Zurich have since been charged or accused by US authorities of criminal wrongdoing, or sanctioned by Fifa’s ethics committee.
Putin’s World Cup kicks off next Thursday. He becomes the first autocrat to host the tournament since Argentina’s military junta in 1978. How did the west lose Fifa? How was the organisation corrupted? And can football fans do anything about it? A collection of books in English, French and German offers some answers.
Red Card is the meeting of American investigative reporting and real-life cop show. Ken Bensinger of BuzzFeed tells the story of the FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents who caught many of Fifa’s criminals. In a curious coincidence, the FBI’s initial tipoff came from Christopher Steele, the former MI6 agent who in 2016 warned the FBI about purported collusion between Russia and Donald Trump’s campaign for the US presidency. Backers of England’s doomed bid to host the 2018 World Cup had hired Steele to collect intelligence on rival bids. He soon heard “troubling rumours” — including stories of officials offering paintings to Exco members in return for votes. Steele alerted an FBI agent in spring 2010, months before the US bid to host in 2022 was defeated. That belies Blatter’s later claim that the US went after Fifa out of pique. Rather, those were the days when the US still tried to uphold a rules-based international order.
The Americans got their chance when soccer-mad IRS agent Steve Berryman — one of Bensinger’s best sources, and therefore a hero of this book — discovered that the US Exco member Chuck Blazer had not filed taxes for at least 17 years. The white-bearded Blazer was as greedy as he was obese. “You look just like Karl Marx!” Putin told him, in one of the president’s charm offensives on Exco members. When the Feds told Blazer they knew enough to jail him for years, he agreed to wear a wire to entrap other corrupt officials. He also educated the FBI on day-to-day corruption in international football: an official sells a marketing agency the television or sponsorship rights to a tournament on the cheap, and in return gets a kickback. Blazer’s mistake was to bank some of his kickbacks in the US, where they were fair game for American justice.
The FBI prosecuted soccer officials under US racketeering laws, in effect, treating Fifa as a mafia. Years of quiet investigation finally led to a dawn raid at Zurich’s stately Baur au Lac hotel in May 2015 and the first arrests. More followed, as corrupt officials “flipped” and began confessing. Blazer died last year before being sentenced, but many of his pals are now in prison.
Nonetheless, the good guys have not won. New criminals have popped up to replace jailed kingpins, just like in mafias, says Bensinger. The FBI only pursued corruption in the Americas. Other continents have barely been touched, though some European police forces are following the FBI’s lead. The Swiss continue to investigate Blatter, who resigned as president days after the Baur au Lac raid. But the dreamt-of clean-up of Fifa has not happened. For now at least, there is no strong external force pushing for it. The Kremlin — livid at the US for harassing its ally and tarnishing its World Cup — need not have worried. Russia and Qatar have kept their tournaments, and hardly anyone has tried to mount a boycott. Chalk up another international victory to Putin.
Russkij Futbol, an excellent German collection of essays, illuminates Russia’s relationship with football since tsarist times. At the first public match in St Petersburg in 1893, spectators laughed as white-clad players tumbled in the mud. The game still barely exists in some Russian regions. But it did enchant the uprooted peasants who flocked to the cities during the forced industrialisation of the 1930s. Stalin’s homicidal secret-police chief Lavrenti Beria, a football nut, took charge of Dynamo Moscow. How to thwart rivals Spartak? Send their leaders to the gulag.
An essay by journalist Johannes Aumüller describes Russia’s relationship with Fifa. After some sponsors deserted the organisation, Russia’s state-run energy giant Gazprom happily stepped in as an “official partner”. Eighteen months after Franz Beckenbauer left Exco, “der Kaiser” — legendary captain and former manager of the German national team — was appointed ambassador of the Gazprom-backed “Russian Gas Society”. Meanwhile, organising the World Cup has further enmeshed senior Russian officials with Fifa.
After Putin’s failure to deliver Russia’s “second modernisation”, sporting spectacles are one way to compensate the population, writes historian Diethelm Blecking. Such showcase events also compensate Putin’s cronies, often in the form of construction contracts.
Russia’s tournament has been conservatively estimated to cost €10bn, more than any previous World Cup. Still, it is a bargain compared with the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics that cost an estimated €40bn, more than all the previous 21 such tournaments combined. Five weeks from now, several of the new stadiums will become white elephants in provincial cities where few people watch league football. Meanwhile, many Russian children never get to play on proper fields under qualified coaches, laments the novelist Ildar Abusjarow in a poignant essay. No wonder Russia’s national team is dreadful — it is ranked 66th in the world — while the country’s social media are full of grumbles about overpriced stadiums.
Football needs reform. The other two books under review ask whether fans can make that happen. Danny Cohn-Bendit led Paris’s student revolution of May 1968, then spent decades as a Franco-German green politician. The title of his book, Sous les crampons . . . la plage (Beneath the studs . . . the beach) evokes the ’68 slogan, “Beneath the paving stones, the beach.” But Cohn-Bendit skipped last month’s revolutionary anniversary. Sick of producing nostalgia about a bygone era, he has instead written a football fan’s autobiography. He seems to generate as much passion watching games in his living room as he did on the barricades of Paris.
Born in southwestern France in 1945 to German-Jewish refugees, he grew up between Paris and Frankfurt. As with so many of us, his fandom began with a World Cup match — in his case, West Germany’s victory over Hungary in the 1954 final. Cohn-Bendit loved the Hungarians, and for obvious reasons always rooted against Germany.
His fandom was rare among French soixante-huitards, most of whom dismissed football as the “opium of the people”. Happily, after being expelled by France, he found that German leftists had no such hang-ups. Watching the famous East Germany-West Germany match with his Frankfurt commune during the 1974 World Cup, he annoyed all the others by cheering for the East.
The book is full of such fan memories, often banal, but heartfelt and therefore mostly charming. He meets football heroes, such as France’s coach Michel Hidalgo, who after winning the 1984 European Championship hugs him and exclaims, “Danny, this is better than ’68!”
When Cohn-Bendit strays from autobiography to opine on the game and its players itself he descends into second-rate punditry. He writes with the celebrity’s certainty that all his thoughts are fascinating. But he also has a politician’s skill for setting an agenda. Sous les crampons . . . argues that today’s players are overpaid; that autocracies like Russia (which has banned him from visiting) should not host World Cups; that football must finally open its eyes to doping; and that Fifa should let players make political statements. His aim is a football that “accords with my principles”.
The authors of Football and Supporter Activism in Europe believe fans can bring that about. Their book is one of several to emerge from a big EU-funded project, “Football Research in an Enlarged Europe”. The authors come from around the continent, and tell some good stories, albeit often in academic prose that isn’t exactly English. The book has an agenda: football belongs to the fans, who must wrest back control from moneyed interests. The authors have collected examples of this happening. Starting with the fan-led 1992 rescue of tiny Northampton Town, supporters trusts have saved and run many smaller British clubs. Now the idea is spreading. Four Spanish clubs, including giants Barcelona and Real Madrid, are officially owned and run by their members (“socios”). Germany bars outside investors from taking over clubs. In Croatia, joint actions by supporters of rival clubs stopped the authorities restricting ticket purchases by away fans.
Yet the editors are honest enough to admit that all this amounts to very little. “Supporters’ role in club management and in particular the decision-making process of clubs remains marginal,” they write. The billionaire Florentino Pérez runs Real Madrid, though he does have to please the socios to secure re-election as president. Other officials dismiss fans as either mere consumers or hooligans. Davor Suker, president of Croatia’s football federation, commented after supporter demonstrations in 2014: “Fans do not have anything to do with ruling clubs. They should cheer for their clubs and that’s it.”
In truth, fans generally lack the money and time required to run clubs. Also, judging by the packed stadiums and global TV contracts, most fans love commercialised modern football.
At least supporters have weekly access to their clubs. They can protest in the stands, or boycott games. But they have almost no access to Fifa in its secure, largely subterranean palace in Zurich. (“Places where people make decisions should contain only indirect light,” was Blatter’s take on transparency.) The tiny percentage of the planet’s fans who will come to the World Cup will understandably be more interested in the games than protesting Fifa or Putin. After the tournament, Fifa will be free to count its takings in peace, and decide how many coins to toss to Russian children without a field to play on. Bensinger says of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa: “By some estimates, Fifa donated less than one-tenth of one per cent of its profits from the tournament.”
Fans won’t change Fifa. Any reform would require the kind of state-led global collective action that is currently dying out. In football as elsewhere, it’s an autocrat’s world.
Red Card: Fifa and the Fall of the Most Powerful Men in Sports, by Ken Bensinger, Profile, RRP£14.99/Simon & Schuster, RRP$28, 368 pages
Russkij Futbol: Ein Lesebuch, by Stephan Felsberg, Tim Köhler and Martin Brand (editors), Die Werkstatt, RRP€16.90, 224 pages
Sous les crampons . . . la plage: Foot et politique: mes deux passions, by Daniel Cohn-Bendit with Patrick Lemoine, Robert Laffont, RRP€19, 252 pages
Football and Supporter Activism in Europe: Whose Game Is It?, by Borja García and Jinming Zheng (editors), Palgrave Macmillan, RRP£89.99, 296 pages
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