On the day after the high-level arrests of senior officials in the international football federation, FIFA, it was hard to find a global figure who would say a good word about FIFA President Sepp Blatter. He may not officially be a suspect in the corruption investigations being carried out by the U.S. Justice Department and the Swiss attorney general at this stage, but many see him as the spider sitting at the center of the web of bribes and deceit. There was, however, one man who rounded on Blatter’s detractors.
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Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday in Moscow that the American investigation “is yet another blatant attempt [by the U.S.] to extend its jurisdiction to other states.” He said it was “very strange” how the arrests in Zurich were carried out on the Americans’ request and explained that “it’s a clear attempt not to allow Mr. Blatter to be re-elected as president of FIFA, which is a great violation of the operating principles of international organizations.”
Putin’s motives are clear. At the center of the investigations is the bidding process in 2010 to host the football World Cup finals, with Russia being chosen to host the 2018 tournament and Qatar winning the 2022 competition. From the start, there were allegations of bribes being paid to members of the FIFA executive committee, and now, following the arrests, there are calls to cancel the entire process and awarding the 2018 and 2022 tournaments to other countries.
Putin is a big believer in the hosting of grandiose sporting spectacles and is extremely loath to lose the World Cup. The timing couldn’t be worse, with his relations with the West at rock-bottom in the wake of the Ukrainian conflict of the last year and a half, along with the reports of Russian army units preparing for a new summer campaign in eastern Ukraine. The FIFA scandal is a useful opportunity for Putin to stoke patriotic anger over what he is portraying as another plot by the Americans to undermine Russia.
But long before this saga began and Putin intervened, major international sporting events – and particularly the powerful organizations that organize the most prestigious of them, FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) – have become a wrestling arena between East and West and between the major democracies and less-democratic countries. Ostensibly, the Western democracies are still interested in hosting World Cups and summer and winter Olympic Games, but it has seemed already for years that these events; with their mega-billion budgets, the gigantic building projects of stadia, roads and hotels that uproot thousands from their homes and cause massive pollution, and the dismal, even murderous working conditions for the tens of thousands of construction workers, sit much better with countries whose leaders are prepared to pay any price. Governments that can spend tens of billions from their national treasuries without accountability or concern for human rights will go to incredible lengths to host these extravaganzas, which showcase the great leaders on a global stage.
And those regimes find it much easier to satisfy the appetites of the members of the committees who vote on the host nations. It’s not that only the dictatorships are capable of slipping a bribe; the organizers of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 were also accused of such conduct. But there a federal investigation took place. Countries with little transparency, like South Africa, which hosted the World Cup five years ago, Russia and Qatar, are not about to investigate any hint of buying votes.
The opaque governance style of FIFA and the IOC, ruled by time-serving bureaucrats who are the ultimate networkers, adept at funneling the hundreds of millions made from sponsorships and television rights to the national federation presidents, who in turn vote for them every few years, is much more compatible with the dictatorship. In the last summer Olympics, London 2012, the British media infuriated the Olympic organizers when they critically reported the demands to dedicate separate traffic lines for the organizers’ vehicles and the way even small private stores were forced to remove from their display windows any Olympic symbols not on official merchandise. Four years earlier at the Beijing Games, such coverage in the fawning Chinese press would have been unthinkable.
The IOC, in return, turned a blind eye to the way thousands of civilians were evicted to make way for the Olympic stadium. And last winter, President Thomas Bach rebuffed any attempt to criticise the Russians’ obscene waste of over 50 billion dollars in putting on the Sochi Olympics, with its massive kickbacks and building of (already crumbling) white elephants. No wonder that the only contenders for the 2022 Winter Olympics are Beijing (120 kilometers from the closest ski slope) and Almaty in Kazakhstan. No democracy is interested in hosting.
But large sporting events can also cause turmoil in fragile democracies – Brazil, which hosted the World Cup last summer and is putting on next year’s Olympics, has experienced extremely violent riots, with thousands of demonstrators protesting the investment of billions in a tournament taking only a few weeks, instead of rehabilitating Brazil’s sprawling slums.
When he hasn’t been busy in recent years defending FIFA from allegations of corruption, Blatter has been shielding Qatar from accusations over its deadly work conditions – 1,200 workers, virtually indentured laborers from the Far East, have already succumbed to heat and exhaustion, dying over seven years before the first football is kicked in the opening match. Blatter shrugs off criticism in the Western, particularly the British, media, as Western racism. Blatter has lost the West, but he believes that as long as he can continue buying the votes of Russia and dictatorships across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, he will survive.