FIFA and football administration at the global, continental and national levels is today one of the most illuminating case studies of the subversion of democratic accountability. The irony is that for the last forty years, the organisation, unlike the United Nations for example, has kept scrupulously to the fundamental democratic principle of “one country, one vote”. Nonetheless, the organisation has at its centre one Sepp Blatter who is essentially a mafia boss.
Sepp Blatter who is 79 years old was elected FIFA President in 1998 and re-elected in 2002, 2007, 2011 and 2015 en route to being president for life until the Americans messed him up. Through the years, those who have tried to contest his power have found themselves excluded or marginalised, one way or anther. In as many countries and continental federations as possible, he had succeeded in reproducing this tradition of mafia executives who cannot be removed. It was last year that I got interested in football politics and decided to start with goggling Sepp Blatter, to find out more on his democratic credentials that African football administrators talk so much about. What I saw was not pretty. World football is a huge global financial empire and the stakes are so high that a mafia has been created to run it. According to the 2014 Deloitte Annual Review of Football in Finance, the cumulative value of the five big European football leagues alone – Bundesliga, La Liga, Ligue1, Premier League and Serie A is 19.9 billion euros. World football operates on the principles of mob rule and the Don is one man called Sepp Blatter. According to Lord Triesman, a member of the British House of Lords and the former chairman of England’s Football Association: “FIFA, I’m afraid, behaves like a mafia family. It has a decades-long tradition of bribes, bungs and corruption, he said. ‘Don Corleone, I believe, would have recognised the tactics and he probably would have admired them.”
It was the FBI investigations that finally brought down the system when they arrested nine executives just before the May 29th elections. The American action was not based on democratic principles. They had been miffed that their bid to host the 2022 world cup was defeated through massive bribes offered by Qatar. The whole world had found the Qatar victory surprising as it is not a footballing country and they have summer temperatures surpassing 45 degrees, and yet they were chosen because they have a high capacity for inducement. Michael Garcia, FIFA’s top investigator and a former US attorney investigated the allegations but FIFA refused to publish his findings and provided a summary, which the investigator himself said was doctored.
We now know that South Africa bribed $10 million to get three extra votes for its 2010 world cup hosting, to gain lead over Morocco. FIFA, like so many African presidents, fell into the trap of thinking it was all-powerful. For forty years, the mafia under Havelenge and latter under Blatter had a permanent majority because they controlled the third world vote, which they maintained by allowing the climate of corruption to continue. The arrangement was solid because FIFA did contribute massively to the development of football and its infrastructure round the world. The money coming in from sponsors was massive and access to it was “democratised”. For the first time, the West found itself in an organisation in which it was playing second fiddle. Europe, whose football has so much money, had 53 votes compared to Africa’s 54. The mafia was fully in charge and that was the problem. The “absolute” power got into their head.
What happens over the course of the next few days, weeks or months will determine the future direction of the world’s football governing body but its not clear if much will change. The mafia is still in charge. Blatter has announced he will step aside after elections take place, maybe in March next year. Meanwhile, he is still in charge, working hard to mask the evidence. The powerful European federation (UEFA) had tried to fight FIFA but did not have the balls to see it through. Their citizens loved football and did not give a damn that Sepp Blatter was a corrupt mafia boss. Their people were only interested in watching football, which climaxes with the World Cup. No European country could therefore even threaten to leave FIFA since they were marginalised forty years ago. The commercial sponsors of the World Cup considered themselves lucky to get a window into the world’s biggest event and would not take the risk of giving it up because their rivals would gladly take over. The reality on the ground was that there were no forces capable of making accountability demands on FIFA. FIFA had no citizens, only clients and fans whose sole interest was that the play should continue. That was why Blatter was going to rule world football forever. The European problem is similar to the African one. African governments invest a lot in football but their football associations have been beyond their control. There have been so many cases in which governments dissolve football associations, sometimes over the just cause of corruption, but big boss Blatter orders them to reinstate these associations immediately or face sanctions, and without exception they obey.
In Nigeria, the NFF is the biggest parastatal in the Sports ministry, but the minister is not the big boss; he cannot do what he likes. At the continental level, our own Blatter is called Issa Hayatou. He is reported to have received millions of dollars in bribes over the years. All those who challenge his power are dealt with. That included the CAF Constitution, which had an age limit that would have barred him from ruling for life. The Constitution had to be amended to allow him rule for life. Yes so many had tried to rule forever, remember Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso, Wade of Senegal, Tandja of Niger and Gbagbo of Cote d’Ivoire. In Congo, Congo DRC, Burundi, Rwanda etc., other presidents are today trying to ensure they rule forever. Their prayer everyday is that they will succeed after all their citizens are only fans busy watching European football. They believe that at the end who cares, football is played and fans enjoy it.

Ibrahim is a development consultant and fellow of the Centre for Development and Democracy in Abuja.. Courtesy: Premium Times