x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

You thought Arab dictators were bad? Just look at Fifa

Sepp Blatter's impression of an irritated dictator on Monday night shows how corrupt Fifa has become. Will the impossible happen, and football fans unite against a common enemy?

I had a nagging feeling that I'd seen this movie before. A discredited, isolated leader is out of touch with the man on the street and losing friends by the day. Facing the world's media, perhaps expected to abdicate, he instead does the opposite. He digs his heels in and tells the watching world that all is fine in his kingdom.

"There was no problem for Fifa's executive committee to act, and there is no issue for the World Cup 2022," said Fifa's president Sepp Blatter on Monday, the very picture of an irritable old dictator. Move along now, he seemed to say. Nothing to see here.

Mr Blatter will today, as the only candidate running, be voted in as president for four more years. Meanwhile, his old pals Jack Warner and Mohamed bin Hammam have been thrown under the bus.

From grassroots programmes in remote African Villages to organising the biggest event on the planet, Fifa has always been one big happy family for Mr Blatter. But then again, that's what the Qaddafis said about Libya.

It is hardly surprising that Fifa has about as much regard for the public as it does for ethics, the English football association and goal-line technology. Which raises the question, what exactly constitutes a crisis in Mr Blatter's world? A look back at Fifa's recent history can shed some light on other examples of business as usual.

This is a man who takes pains to slight women footballers and homosexuals. Innumerable Fifa executives linked to corruption, bribes and dubious gifts have kept their posts or returned after a brief hiatus. Navigating Fifa's scandals over the last decade is as fruitless as explaining the offside law to Pippo Inzaghi.

But this may be a scandal too far for Mr Blatter, regardless of his re-election. No sooner had the conference ended in comical circumstances than fans and journalist inundated Twitter and blogs with calls for his removal, with #blatterout trending heavily. Many others targeted Fifa's media partners, calling on them to boycott the organisation.

Indeed, it will be interesting to see how sponsors view the scandal. The World Cup remains unrivalled in terms of global exposure and few advertisers would want to give it up. But cosying up to Mr Blatter would take a strong stomach these days.

As an organisation, Fifa is utterly devoid of credibility. Just possibly, it has lost that aura of unaccountability that any dictator would kill for.

No government has jurisdiction over its affairs. Only 24 executive members, from 208 member countries, are allowed to vote on the World Cup venue. Ten of those are embroiled in this corruption scandal, which has cast doubt on 2018 Russia and, more importantly for our region, 2022 Qatar.

But, worst of all, only Fifa can investigate wrongdoing in Fifa. If Mr Blatter says there's no problem, there's not much anyone can do about it.

So what's next? Mr Blatter cannot expect the matter to be swept under the carpet. The press, treated with utter contempt on Monday, smells blood. An organisation called ChangeFifa is calling for an overhaul of the world's governing body, demanding more financial transparency. Players are calling for the organisation to be run by former players. The Uefa president Michel Platini and the German legend Franz Beckenbauer would be obvious candidates.

Football will, of course, survive this scandal. It has survived wars and financial catastrophes, probably doing better in times of doom and gloom as people need a diversion. And Saturday's Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United reminded us of how beautiful the beautiful game can be.

Mr Blatter, however, has seemingly pulled off an even more unlikely trick. His ostrich act at the press conference on Monday night, worthy of any paranoid dictator, may have done the impossible. He seems to have managed to unite football fans from around the world against one common enemy: the house of cards that is Fifa.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae