The Brazilian Legend Who Wants to Kick Corruption Out of Soccer

In an exclusive interview with Haaretz, Zico explains what changes he would implement as FIFA president, and his love for Israel.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Brazilian soccer legend Zico in March 2014, during a news conference in Rio de Janeiro.
Brazilian soccer legend Zico in March 2014, during a news conference in Rio de Janeiro.Credit: AP

He is one of the world’s greatest and best-loved soccer players of all time. He has political experience, and his integrity and fairness are not in doubt. He is even a friend of Israel and enjoys warm relations with the large Jewish community in his country. Arthur Antunes Coimbra, better known as Zico, is running for president of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA.

Even though he was considered an outsider at first, the entanglement of Michel Platini and others in the organization’s corruption scandal have made the only candidate, for example, to have publicly come out against granting the 2022 World Cup finals to Qatar into one with a realistic chance of being elected.

First, though, he needs to secure the backing of five national federations to secure a nomination. Other likely contenders include South Africa's Tokyo Sexwale, France's Jérme Champagne and Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein of Jordan, who unsuccessfully stood against Sepp Blatter last May.

In an exclusive interview with Haaretz, Zico talks about Blatter and Platini, corruption in FIFA and problems in world soccer, what can and should be done, and his ability to make changes. He doesn’t skip over Israel’s place in the soccer nations, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and who is the greatest player ever.

You’re a living legend, a respected and admired figure in the soccer world. So why dirty yourself by running for president of FIFA?

“When I saw what is happening around me in the sport that I so love, the field I have lived in for over 45 years, I realized that someone from within soccer who runs for the office could genuinely do things and have an effect. It’s horrible what we see happening in soccer in recent years. I offered my name as a candidate because I believe that change has to come – not just the semantics that are being sold to us today, but radical change.”

What changes do you intend to make in soccer and to FIFA if elected?

“I want to bring something that doesn’t exist today in FIFA. Together with other members of my team, we went over FIFA statutes, and nowhere in the 81 pages do the words ‘democracy’ or ‘transparency’ appear. I intend to introduce total transparency, how the World Cup host countries are chosen, how the president is chosen and, especially, who gets the television broadcasting rights.

“Explain to me how soccer’s schedule moves in favor of a place like Qatar. They don’t belong to soccer, it’s not a place that should host the World Cup – yet the whole world changes for them. People are going to be punished for this, yet still the tournament will be played there?

“I will bring what is called in Portuguese ‘head to head.’ I want a debate and I want change. I was born close to soccer, and I’ve been living and working in soccer since I was small. I’ve been through everything in soccer. I worked in three continents and know the soccer world.”

Zico is thrown in the air by celebrating members of the Japanese national team after winning the Asian Cup in 2004.Credit: AP

Zico believes Israel – which supported the allegedly corrupt Blatter in the last elections and some of whose soccer heads are close to Platini, who is accused of corruption – should be in favor of him.

“Israel is a democracy, Israel has a democratic culture, and I believe they will be with me in my democratic approach that has to be instilled today. It is the duty of the heads of Israeli soccer to vote independently and choose someone who understands their problems. The Israel Football Association has to say openly and clearly who it supports for the sake of the Israeli people. We want to work for soccer, instead of spending our time watching how the FIFA bosses defend themselves.”

What is your opinion of Blatter and Platini?

“I have met Mr. Blatter a few times, I travelled to meet him on September 24 and we had a private meeting. I presented my suggestions to him. He told me he was proud and satisfied with the visit and happy that I came to him, that none of the other candidates had come to see him and that shows respect and integrity on my part.

“But I went to see the president of FIFA, not Blatter. He showed that he cannot continue, that he’s lost control. There are other things he didn’t answer. He’s ended his career after 17 years and that should have happened a long time ago.

“Regarding Platini, I can say that I respect him and appreciate him as a friend. He did good work at [the European soccer body] UEFA. When I was a coach at [Turkish teams] Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, I saw the development and modernization that he brought to European soccer during his tenure. He had good years as UEFA president, but he’s been connected to FIFA for a long time, he knew very well what was going on there and has to answer the suspicions against him – and the accusations against him are very serious. If he gets out of it clean, then I’ll be happy to cooperate with him – but his situation is difficult. Today, to vote for someone with such suspicions hanging over him is not what soccer needs.”

Zico answered every question, and did not avoid even those that could be viewed as uncomfortable for him to answer right now. Another point in his favor.

A friend of Israel

You’re known to be a friend of Israel and close to the Jewish community in Brazil, and have visited the Maccabiah [Jewish Olympics]. Isn’t that liable to harm you in the Arab and Muslim countries?

“I don’t believe that politics has to be part of the sporting world. Yes, I’ve visited Israel and liked what I saw in the little time I spent there. I saw a very modern country, with modern people. I have been to many Arab countries. I respect Judaism and the Jewish community, and respect the Arabs, whether in Brazil or in the countries I’ve worked in – and I’ve worked in a few [Zico also coached the national teams of Iraq and Qatar].

FIFA presidential candidate Zico addresses the media during a news conference at a hotel in Switzerland, September 24, 2015.Credit: Reuters

“My campaign will not differentiate between the countries. I will make every effort not to get involved in politics at the national level. I believe that soccer can be an example of understanding and peace between countries and between peoples. I know how difficult it is for Israel in the world today, and we will try to be sensitive to this. But we must also respect all the other countries and national teams such as Palestine. I very much want Israel’s support, like I want the support of every country that supports democracy and every place that wants to improve soccer.”

You were the sports minister in Brazil and so have some political experience. To what extent does this help your candidacy?

“I have worked both on the field and a lot off the field as player and coach, and I was also a team manager. I worked for the national team at the highest level, I was sports minister of Brazil for a period. I think and believe I can be the president of FIFA, and hear people in the sport saying, ‘Yes, you can be the president of FIFA.’

“I respect everyone’s view; everyone has the freedom to express himself without limits. I know how to listen and respect, and I also ask for respect. Like there are those who disagree with me, there are many who do agree with me. Every passing day, there are people saying positive things about my candidacy. It’s an honor for me to receive the support of great and famous figures in the soccer world such as Pele, [former Brazil player] Roberto Carlos, [former Dutch star] Clarence Seedorf and even [former Portuguese captain] Luis Figo [a candidate in the last election].

“We want to show the world that players – like coaches, doctors, fans, journalists – they all should express their views and be heard. It cannot be that all the decisions are in the hands of so few people. I have learned much in this campaign, especially that many people want radical changes in FIFA and to be heard. I hope to represent them.

“So whatever people think about me, it doesn’t matter. What does matter is who stands beside me in order to bring democracy and transparency into FIFA.”

Soccer is afflicted by gambling, games being the subject of bribery in some places, including Brazil, and also with violence. What can be done? Is it a matter for FIFA and the national associations, or should governments be dealing with such issues?

“These are only a few of the problems facing soccer today. Soccer is suffering from some very serious problems, including the ones you point out. Of course, in my opinion the governments have responsibility for what happens, much greater than that of FIFA it’s a problem of education and, in other cases, of corruption. But FIFA today has the same problem within itself: it cannot deal forcefully with soccer because of the tension that exists within the building.

“The number 1 has been fired, the number 2 suspended, other decision makers cannot operate because of corruption, problems with the police, with banks and the FBI. How can FIFA do anything except defend its people and itself? FIFA cannot deal today with the problems I have noted; it’s focused on itself and defending itself. This is why it’s so important to bring in urgent changes, especially within FIFA, so it can do things for soccer and its problems in the world.”

How can we prevent the situation in which large groups or commercial concerns control soccer? Are you in favor of enacting a wage ceiling in soccer, financial fair play, etc.

“The inequality that you note has become part of the present reality in soccer. In soccer, the level of teams should be dealt with by the [national] associations, which receive instructions from FIFA. But this connection does not exist today. Legislation is necessary regarding these issues – but with transparency, so the associations know what they have to do at the level of the teams. Ultimately, the leagues in every country have to legislate laws to solve these problems.

“A wage ceiling is a good thing. Financial fair play is a positive thing – Europe is more advanced in this respect than the rest of the world, which also has to act, and in FIFA this issue will be open to everyone. I repeat: The local associations, such as Israel’s, have not been heard, but they will be heard when I am president of FIFA.”

‘Fresh ideas needed’

If you weren’t a candidate, who would you support?

“Today, I cannot say who I would support because the final list of candidates is not yet known. Before all the suspensions and suspicions, I would have voted for Platini because UEFA was modernized under him. But after all that has happened – definitely not. FIFA needs new people, from outside – as the chairman of the International Olympic Committee said – not from within FIFA. New people are needed, with fresh ideas not connected to what happened there. It’s amazing that the world speaks on the one hand of the war against corruption, but is mum when it comes to candidates connected to the old FIFA.

“There is hardly a single candidate with no suspicions against him. I don’t want to speak evil or think evil about anyone. I am a soccer player who played on three continents, brings new ideas and new people. I want to see soccer people doing business, and not the other way around – businesspeople who occasionally dabble in soccer. I want a democratic FIFA that can reflect the view of all the world, like Israel.”

As with the Qatar issue, Zico is the only one to express a brave, non-populist opinion on the issue of the number of teams in the World Cup finals – the opposite of those seeking to gain votes. His reply to the question regarding the number of teams in the finals is clear.

“This is another question on which I have decided to open international dialogue and debate. I want to hear from all 209 national associations. Today, with 32 teams, there’s a problem with differences in levels. Decisions such as to go from 16 to 24 teams, and from 24 to 32 teams, were of course political when the votes were cast in order to play in the World Cup finals. I’m not saying that 32 is not good, but the way it is done is not legitimate. I don’t think the number of countries should be increased – 32 is also a lot – but I will open the subject for debate to hear what the media, coaches and associations think.”

Zico was previously the assistant coach of the Brazilian national team, under the great Mário Zagallo, including the 1998 World Cup. Like every romantic Brazilian soccer fan, he laments the current situation of what was, for many years, the world’s greatest team.

What must be done so that Brazil improves and returns to its natural place?

“The Brazilian national team currently has a problematic coach and on the field is a team that plays without joy and without the technique of the past. [Coach Carlos] Dunga had good results in the friendly games, but terrible results in the important games. He didn’t work with the clubs and that is a problem: he arrived at the national team without success or even experience at club level.

“But the problem is with the Brazilian players. They leave Brazil every year in larger numbers and at younger ages. Because they leave so early, they lose the Brazilian approach to the ball and the Brazilian technique; they are maybe more tactical, but they lose the authentic identity of Brazilian soccer that everyone loves in Brazil and worldwide. They go to play everywhere in the world, in places where soccer is completely different. They play in places where they don’t know the language and it takes time to adjust to the place, the fans, the language. That’s the reason, in my opinion, why the boys aren’t playing in the Brazilian style that we’re used to. They live well, increase their tactical understanding, but lose the light Brazilian approach, the magic of the ball at the foot. And, thus, Brazil has become not Brazil, to my sorrow.”

If you could choose now between the presidency of FIFA and coaching Brazil to a World Cup, which would you pick?

“I would choose to be president of FIFA, and that is why I entered this campaign. That’s what’s important – to bring to FIFA the viewpoint of the player who was at all levels of the game. FIFA needs transparency, it needs a change of ideas, debate that will fertilize it. The way I started as a coach was my life. If I am not elected, I will return to coaching my team in India and in the schools I have in Brazil and Japan. I don’t want and don’t think about the Brazilian national team. But I believe I will be elected and can change soccer as the president of FIFA. The fans and media need to know that in FIFA, there is someone who understands soccer and not someone who knows only how to sign documents.”

Who’s better, Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo? And who do you thing is the greatest player ever?

“I repeatedly say that God brought all the qualities that a footballer needs and he put them together in one person only – his name is Pele. Regarding Messi and Ronaldo, they are phenomena, they both are outstanding, but they have different qualities. They are already in the soccer history books. They are geniuses, different and athletic at the highest physical level. They are professionals who also decide what happens in a game. It’s difficult to find things like this. They have tremendous footballing wisdom and were born with a natural talent, but it’s their wisdom that takes them to a completely different level.

“They are so professional that they know they are an example to tens of millions of children worldwide, and I wish them many career years because they bring joy to the fans, including me. They are the best two in the world at present. Maybe one day it’ll be some skinny Brazilian playing in the Spanish league, but for now they are the best in the world.

Zico asks to sum up.

“I want to thank Haaretz for giving me the possibility of speaking to soccer-loving Israelis. I know how difficult it is for a country that has had to play in every continent, as I know how difficult the sensitive political situation is. It is important to me that Israel supports me, because you are special people. It is important that all your past players, journalists and fans go with the person who is going for change, and not go to other candidates and vote under pressure. I wish you peace and that soccer in the future be clean. Corruption harms everyone – me in India, my family in Brazil or you in Israel. The corruption has reached unacceptable levels.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics: