David Conn chronicles the highest football body’s precipitous decline into systemic corruption in his new book. Known for his outstanding investigative reportage, he writes for ‘The Guardian‘, chiefly, about the unholy relationship between money and football.
With ‘The fall of the house of FIFA’, Conn marks the end of his hiatus of five years. His last book, ‘Richer than God‘, was a superb tale about the invasion of foreign money into the English premier league; a must-read for every modern day football fan. In his new book, he treads the serpentine trail of fraud and breach of trust in the highest echelons of the beautiful game.
For the uninitiated, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) is the football’s world governing body entrusted with the responsibility of developing the game. It also executes the big money sporting events such as the World cup and the European championship. To give you a glimpse of the size of these events, the 2014 World Cup generated a top-line of $4.8 billion and profits of $2.6 billion for FIFA. With such staggering amounts of money on the table, it is hard to keep the venality away.
Contrary to the general perception, corruption in FIFA is not a recent phenomenon. As Conn reports in the book, the seeds of financial chicanery were sown way back in the ’70s. This was long before the TV rights money had inundated the game. This was even before the Russian oligarchs and Arab sheiks had decided to change the equation forever.
Horst Dassler allegedly introduced the virus of fraudulence into football. Son of Adolf Dassler, the founder of sportswear behemoth Adidas, Horst was an astute businessman. He was the brains behind the commercialization of football and creation of a TV market for the game. He was also the founder of International Sport Leisure (ISL), a Swiss sports marketing company.
In 2001, ISL went bust and its collapse brought to fore a barrage of revelations. Conn reports that ISL had been paying multi-million-dollar bribes to the heads of FIFA and its confederations in lieu of the marketing rights. One of the key beneficiaries of Dassler’s generosity happened to be Dr. João Havelange, the 7th FIFA president.
“We who have loved football all our lives do not want to believe that those who run the game, on their manifestos of doing good, are this corrupt and rotten, and so marinated in greed.” – David Conn
Havelange bribed and manipulated his way to the presidency, documents Conn. If FIFA had a hall of shame, both Havelange and Horst Dassler would get special places in there. Here’s David Conn on the duo’s unholy alliance, “Havelange did help himself to bribes from Horst Dassler’s ISL in the 1990s and was therefore embroiled in instituting a culture of corruption in this governing body of football.”
If Havelange brought the first strains of corruption in FIFA, Blatter’s reign took financial impropriety to the endemic level. When it all came to head years later, a US court labeled FIFA a RICO (Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization), an indictment otherwise specially reserved for the mafia.
Blatter, as Conn describes him, comes across as a glib master manipulator. He did not indulge in blatant malfeasance himself, but he let the malaise spread. He was cognizant of the malpractices at confederations, but he never intervened. Instead, he allowed corruption to flourish. During the presidential elections, Blatter would leverage his ‘magnanimity’.
Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer, the former President and the general secretary of CONCACAF (Confederation of Central American and African Football) respectively benefited the most from Blatter turning a blind eye.
Warner, in particular, committed the biggest frauds against both FIFA and CONCACAF. He hoodwinked FIFA into wiring millions of dollars to the bank accounts he himself and his companies owned. The Confederation of which he was the leader, CONCACAF, never got the money. All this happened on Blatter’s watch. Conn mentions Warner’s temerity in an interview, “Without my CONCACAF support at the FIFA elections, Blatter would never have seen the light of day as president of FIFA.”
The disconcerting part of the whole endemic construct was that the purges of 2010 – when Jack Warner and co. were removed – and 2015 – when several FIFA officials were arrested, failed to exorcise the corruption from the footballing body.
Conn’s account of Jeff Webb who had replaced Jack Warner as the head of CONCACAF is particularly amusing in this regard. Webb portrayed himself as the epitome of integrity and righteousness, and when the din settled down, he turned out to be more venal than any of his predecessors. In 2015, FBI arrested Webb on the charges of racketeering and money-laundering.
The biggest FIFA debacle, however, played out in 2010 when the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup were handed over to Qatar. In all honesty, until I read this book, I thought Sepp Blatter must have played a central role in this fiasco. Much to my surprise though, Conn reveals that when it turned out to be Qatar, even Blatter was stunned since he wanted the World Cup to go to the US. Nevertheless, the 2010 draw marked the beginning of the end of Blatter’s regime.
In another disclosure, Conn mentions that it was the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy who had moved the needle in Qatar’s favor. He coaxed Michael Platini, then head of UEFA, into voting for Qatar which the latter did. As per Conn’s account, Platini took 4 executive council votes to Qatar, thus, tipping the scales in the tiny Arab nation’s favor. Qataris purportedly repaid the favor by taking over the French club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and making Qatar Tourism Authority its €200 million a year sponsor.
In the end, the long-running FIFA ethics committee investigation could not indict Blatter of anything scandalous, but there were clear signs that he was aware of what was going on under his nose. In 2015, due to relentless pressure from the sponsors and media, Blatter stepped down from FIFA presidency – a position he had occupied, against all odds, for 17 years.
Blatter’s situation reminds me of an apt quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile: “If you see fraud and do not shout fraud, you are a fraud.”
Conn gives us an impressionistic chronicle of events starting from 1930 when the first world cup was held in Uruguay. With his usual meticulous research, Conn entwines a strong narrative with a sharp focus on key figures. At least as important, he writes in an unobtrusive but compelling style that carries the reader along with unforced ease.
The only aspect that works against the book is the overwhelming cast of characters, not that Blatter and co. left Conn with any choice. I had to flip back and forth multiple times to get a handle on who was whom. But then, it was worth the trouble.
If you are a football fan and love the nitty-gritty of what goes on behind the field of play, I recommend ‘The Fall of the House of the FIFA’ to you. It is a provocative X-ray of grim realities of the football world.