Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A tainted coronation but Blatter has the last laugh

The winner takes it all.

Despite an unprecedented tide of corruption allegations, Sepp Blatter has been crowned the king of football again.

For another four years, the septuagenarian Swiss will lord it over the world of soccer from Blatter.his fortress on a Zurich hill.

'51 ideas a day' is the true teflon president, cleverly escaping a planned assault on his throne from Mohamed Bin-Hammam and able to weather a late lunge from his 'bad lieutenant' Jack Warner and a desperate last-ditch strike from David Bernstein.

In the end, the tsunami of scandal that Warner promised washed over his punishment-proof castle and he could breath a sigh of relief. The Swiss still calls the shots and while Switzerland remains a country which does not want to engage with the world, there is no body to hold him meaningfully to account.

The judicial verdict on the collapse of ISL would probably mean the end of Blatter, but it remains locked in a Swiss prosecutor's vault in Zug, hidden from public viewing.

Never mind the worldwide ridicule and condemnation of the bent Executive Committee, over a third of whom have been fingered for dirty deeds. Sepp was re-elected after only 17 of FIFA's 203 voting associations backed the Football Association's last-minute rebellion; 17 others abstained from the proposal to postpone the presidential election, leaving the one-candidate show free to proceed, a pompous waste-of-time that would not have looked out of place in a dictatorship.

Dictatorships and FIFA have more than a passing resemblance, although The Sun's blunt 'Spot the Difference' front page plastering Blatter's mug cheek-by-jowl with Colonel Gadaffi's today may have been overboard.

There is at least a superficial similarity, as football's governing body has only a pretence of democracy, and are ensconced in the land of the supine Swiss and a government which famously asks no questions.

So why is he still in power? It comes down to a difference of perspective. Europe, where the game was born and where the richest leagues are, is made up of largely transparent countries and when corruption occurs in one of them, such as Italy's Calciopoli scandal of 2006, it is exposed and stamped upon. But FIFA is a world organisation of which UEFA is only one constituent part. In much of the developing world Blatter and FIFA is still seen as a force for good, spraying their largesse around the globe in development projects, and giving men from nations like Guatemala, Papua New Guinea and the Ivory Coast seats on the 24-man elite who run world football.

The ousting of Stanley Rous in 1974 by Joao Havelange, who was noticeably present at FIFA House today, watching over proceedings like a ghost from the past, was welcomed in much of the soccer world as Rous had been so Euro-centric he had limited Africa and Asia to only one spot at the 1966 World Cup finals, and maintained support for apartheid South Africa in the face of outrage among black African nations. Europe might still have the big money in football, but in terms of FIFA influence, the developed world is outvoted by the developing world. And England, homeland of the game, is as isolated as ever.

"This is not a bazaar", thundered Blatter at furious journalists on Sunday, but the ethics of the organisation involve a lot of buying and selling of votes and little reward for merit or integrity. General Secretary Jerome Valcke confirmed as much in his email to Jack Warner, when he wondered if Bin-Hammam was trying to buy the presidency in the same way Qatar had "bought" the 2022 World Cup finals. Germany, after Australia, are the latest country to call that mind-boggling decision into question, but with Blatter back in power, hopes of a re-run of that vote are further away than ever.

Blatter.
The overwhelming nature of the presidential election - 186 votes for Blatter with 17 abstentions, gives the Swiss a green light for business as usual. While the world knows FIFA is bent, the opposition cannot muster enough strength to reform it from the inside. One nation, one vote is both a democratic blessing and a curse as minor football nations carry as much influence as major ones.

As the clearly stressed Valcke summoned them one by one by name to the polling booth, you had to wonder again why nations like Vanuatu, Kyrgyzstan and the Seychelles have as much say in world football as Brazil, Germany and Italy for instance.

Mobilising the developing world has been the key to Blatter's survival as much as it was for his predecessor Joao Havelange. The European howls at blatant bribery do not play as resoundingly to some other ears, who have culturally different levels of tolerance.

If there were any doubt there is a continental divide in FIFA, one only had to witness the sickening sycophancy of the delegates from Benin, the D.R. Congo and Haiti, who pledged undying and obsequious loyalty to King Sepp from the podium at FIFA House before the vote, in breathtaking contrast to the cries for transparency and honesty coming from outside the Congress.

The most depressing tribute of all came from Argentina's Julio Grondona, who perhaps still bitter at the Falklands War, took the opportunity to indulge in some bashing of 'the pirates', as the English are disparagingly referred to in his homeland.

"We always have attacks from England which are mostly lies with the support of journalism which is more busy lying than telling the truth," he said. "It looks like England is always complaining so please I say will you leave the Fifa family alone."

Well England has a right to complain, because no-one else is, and corruption grows like bacteria if it is not confronted when it appears. There was some pride to be salvaged in the fact that English accents predominated among the probing reporters at Blatter's tumultous press conference on Sunday, that Fleet Street newspapers have done the lion's share of exposing FIFA corruption and that the unbeatable Brit Andrew Jennings had produced another devastating expose for the BBC only days before the gathering in Zurich.

If no other country will keep snapping at the heels of FIFA, then England will have to keep up the chase.

But no amount of investigative hacking could prevent Blatter escaping the house-fire intact. Ever the wily politician, he played another trump card only hours before the election by announcing he would open the World Cup voting beyond the 24 Ex.Co. members to each of the 208 national associations, a guaranteed vote-winner.

He might have turned a blind eye to years of wrongdoing, and may have been guilty of much of it himself, but Sepp Blatter's extraordinary suvival skills have saved his bacon again.

While the 2022 World Cup furor appears to be dying, the issue of Bin-Hammam and Warner's corruption trial remains to be solved, and the Trinidadian will not go down fighting. Watch this space for more fireworks, but it will be a while until there is a week like the last in FIFA politics.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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