Imagine a world in which the President of a domestic football association can be removed by his own government for gross corruption: yet instead of being ostracised by the world game, in fact receives a promotion. All the way to President of the continental confederation and the FIFA Executive Committee: whose daily activities make his previous life look like a picnic. That parallel universe was, until only two days ago, the preserve of one Eugenio Figueredo, national (and now, international) disgrace.
Figueredo it was who presided over the destruction of the credibility and dignity of the AUF; beckoned Francisco ‘Paco’ Casal into a position of unrivalled dominance, which would impoverish the entire domestic game; and was forced out of office by a furious Frente Amplio government, their famous words that “football needed to be cleaned with soap, water and a wire brush” ringing in his ears.
And Figueredo it then was who, far from being cowed, only grew more powerful still: profiting hugely from an alliance with Julio Grondona, the Don Corleone of South American football, which enabled the criminal carve-up of television and marketing rights of CONMEBOL’s flagship tournaments, and turned the huge majority of this continent’s clubs into little more than vassals: forever forced to sell their best players, forever dealing with endemic hooliganism, yet left to feed on crumbs from the confederation’s table.
Regular readers of La Celeste Blog can’t say they weren’t warned. We did call this The Mother Of All Crises… and why? Because it was never solely confined to Uruguay. This is a crisis with multiple international pipelines: spanning South, Central and North America, pitting the US authorities against the world governing body, throwing the bidding processes and host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups into the starkest possible relief, and bringing down mafioso gangster after gangster. Individuals who long believed themselves to be above the law – and on what they’ve been allowed to get away with for so long, who could blame them for thinking so?
To deal, first, with a few of those individuals. The article I published just over a year ago set out how, just as Casal had been locked in by Figueredo from 1999 onwards – when Tenfield were outbid for the television and image rights of the Uruguayan league and national team by $32m, yet secured the contract and ludicrously preferential treatment thereafter regardless – so he was locked out when comprehensively outbidding CONMEBOL’s long term Argentinian partners, T&T/TyC. Across South America, Paco was victim of the exact same closed, corrupt parody of a process which had favoured him for so long in Uruguay.
This led to Casal initially appearing to totally over-reach himself. In tandem with various Uruguayan clubs, famous ex-players such as Diego Maradona, Romario or Jose-Luis Chilavert, he effectively declared war not only on CONMEBOL, but FIFA itself. CONMEBOL responded by suspending the AUF; while the Argentinian company, Full Play (a subsidiary of TyC) threatened to snatch the TV rights for Uruguay’s 2018 World Cup qualifiers: with a compromise eventually agreed in which Tenfield would show La Celeste’s home matches, Full Play their away games.
With Wilmar Valdez, a Casal ally (and at times, puppet) installed as permanent AUF President, Paco remained secure in Uruguay, but his cause seemed hopeless further afield. Until, of course, these indictments: which as well as Figueredo, also include Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, the little-known principals of – wait for it – Full Play.
Beyond Chuck Blazer having been the main informant for the US investigation, we know little more; but I would be extremely surprised if the above circumstances are entirely coincidental. Given Maradona and Chilavert’s immediately euphoric comments when the news broke on Wednesday, my best guess is, whether through intermediaries or otherwise, Casal has provided the US Department of Justice with substantial information. And of course, helped remove Figueredo, his one-time supporter but latter day enemy. Hell hath no fury like a TV tycoon scorned.
Thus from having appeared all but finished a year ago, Paco is now triumphant: a very big winner from the events of recent days. But we should think about what this actually means. Across South and Central America, clubs have been impoverished and emasculated by fraudulent TV and marketing deals which allowed them desperately little; forced them to sell their best players; left them unable to renovate their stadiums or do anything much about crowd safety; and has resulted in a club game light years behind what its wealthy European counterpart has to offer. All the while huge bribes were disappearing into the bank accounts and back pockets of the continent’s administrators.
Casal, among others, will surely step in and seek to enrich players – the key to his success in Uruguay – but beyond that? There’s no doubt that Tenfield/Global Sports are a modern company, with more than a hint of American business influence; but equally little doubt that Paco has always been about the bottom line, and cares precisely nothing for the general health of the game.
Worse: the indictment of Full Play means he will return to his unquestioned pre-eminence in Uruguay, while caring increasingly little about the product given his wider, suddenly realisable ambitions. No commercial competition means no prospect of change: so stadiums will remain dilapidated, pitches will remain an embarrassment, crowd violence will remain rife, clubs will remain bereft.
Last weekend, an absolute trainwreck of a football match was played out by the once storied South American giants of Peñarol and Nacional. The whole country spent the next 24 hours talking about it: talking, that is, about two joke clubs who abandoned any pretensions to greatness long ago, play football to make onlooking eyes bleed, and spend their time fighting each other and signing mercenaries aged 35 or over.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Two bald men fighting over a comb. A clasico played in a penal colony on Mars. But with Casal reinforced, matters will get worse, not better: last weekend’s horror show wasn’t the exception, but a dreadful portent of things to come. And while those in the US might say they want football to be run properly, nobody will care about a small country in the South Atlantic. More than ever, Uruguayan football remains under Paco Casal’s lock and key.
More broadly: the downfall of the likes of Figueredo – the former second hand car dealer who was paying his daughter the AUF’s highest salary when forced out in 2006 – and Nicolas Leoz has long been in the runes. CONMEBOL is based in Luque, Paraguay: which rather grotesquely, doubles as the confederation’s poorest member and host to its extravagant headquarters. Equally grotesquely, the octagenarian Leoz, so long its President, likely to be considered too sick to travel to the US, resides in a multi-million dollar mansion in Asuncion.
The AUF’s headquarters are modest and spartan. So is the football museum at the national embarrassment that is the Estadio Centenario. CONMEBOL HQ, on the other hand? The images below give you the tiniest sense of what it’s like: opulence both outside and in, a building which practically screams its wealth at visitors; and inside, plaques which commemorate the glorious, omniscient heads of the continent’s football associations.
How was that building constructed? It would hardly be that much of a shock if it was done through exactly the same kickbacks and greed which first disgustingly enriched, then belatedly brought down the confederation’s foremost apparatchiks. So when CONMEBOL issue a statement of unintentional comedy pledging to “fight for the primacy of truth, ethics and transparency of FIFA, CONMEBOL and member associations”, I can really only laugh. Business as usual, then.
To understand why South American and Uruguayan football are the way they are, though, you have also to understand why world football is the way it is. The Uruguayan game especially is only a microcosm of the global game. One is a small-scale mafia; the other, a huge one. Whose governing body is – and has been for decades – nothing short of an international criminal organisation, many of whose members believe they were chosen by the Almighty to oversee the world’s most popular sport.
The criminal indictments issued by the American authorities on Wednesday cover offences spanning some 24 years. But in truth, FIFA was corrupted beyond repair long before that. In 1974, Englishman Stanley Rous was usurped as FIFA President by Joao Havelange of Brazil. Rous was a competent administrator – but also a racist, with appallingly offensive views on apartheid South Africa, and no long term vision for the sport.
Rous’ FIFA was European-dominated. He was removed only eight years after a World Cup in England won by his native country in highly dubious fashion: which featured four semi-finalists from UEFA; from which Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay all exited controversially, in large part thanks to inept officiating which seemed for all the world to be biased towards their respective European opponents. To all too many South Americans (and many others around the world), it looked like a stitch-up.
A narrative now began to germinate amongst those who’d go on to support Havelange: namely, that FIFA was just another case of British and European colonialism and the white man’s burden, with no regard for the developing world and no desire to spread the sport. This is what propelled him to the top. This was what led to the subsequent commercial revolution in football. And this narrative was also taken up by Havelange’s anointed successor, Joseph (Sepp) Blatter.
Through the GOAL Program, FIFA provided huge funds for all member associations, with the purported aim of growing football at grassroots level (however much of this money ended up in the back pockets and slush funds of local administrators). It greatly expanded the World Cup too: taking it to the USA, Far East and Africa, and increasing the number of qualifying berths for emerging nations at the expense of football’s Old World. Naturally, the developing world – already hamstrung by a club game dominated by a European plutocracy – supported this approach absolutely… and despite recent events, still do. Blatter is still their man; the anti-UEFA narrative still prevails.
Two years ago, when I visited AUF headquarters and interviewed some staff, I was hugely struck by how reliant it was on the GOAL monies. Only through these could it grow its grassroots and youth level programmes: the latter, which have enjoyed so much success in recent years. And that was at a time when, under Sebastian Bauza, Uruguayan football enjoyed genuinely good, clean governance. Just as it was dependent on FIFA funds, so were so, so many other associations around the world: most of whom are terrified of a post-Blatter landscape. Alarmingly, as I’ll set out later, they may well be right to be so.
FIFA, then, hasn’t been 100% bad over the last 40 years. But over that time, this gentleman’s club has morphed into an all-encroaching organisation with more power than many nation states. A supposed non-profit organisation (no laughing at the back now), it pays no tax in Switzerland; and when it comes to any country bidding to host its flagship tournament, FIFA requires a series of comprehensive tax exemptions; exemptions from local money-laundering legislation; even the right of jurisdiction over its own ‘World Cup courts’.
Moreover, increasingly apparent during recent World Cup bidding processes has been that no country with the modern stadia and footballing infrastructure already in place should even dream of success. FIFA isn’t interested in countries like England, Spain, the US or Australia; it’s very, very interested indeed in places where new stadiums need to be built from scratch. Why? Because these new builds are sub-contracted out: and for the Executive Committee, that means kickbacks. Big, fat, juicy ones.
In the case of Qatar, the ludicrous choice to hold the 2022 tournament, not only were large bribes apparently paid to grease its path. Its whole series of new stadiums will then be taken down and rebuilt in the countries of ExCo members: not one, but two rounds of kickbacks, in other words. To be sure, one cannot accuse the Qataris of not understanding their target audience.
The announcement of that decision – the awarding of the greatest sporting tournament on planet Earth to a country with zero footballing tradition, where alcohol and homosexuality are banned, and where in the summer, temperatures reach 120F or above, in the face of a technical report which had ranked Qatar’s bid dead last – was, I think, the day the world (or at least, the European and North American part of it) finally woke up. FIFA could not be reasoned with; to play the game meant to pay its members millions of dollars, with no guarantee of success if someone else paid even more.
Since then, the situation has got worse. Far worse. Qatar is little short of a modern day slave and apartheid state. Workers are denied the right to leave the country without permission from their employers; those building the new stadiums are subjected to horrific, inhuman working and living conditions, and in many cases, being paid nothing. Why? Most of these labourers are plucked from poor areas of India or Nepal, promised a good life and the chance to send money back to their families… yet on arrival, suddenly find themselves heavily indebted for the ‘costs’ of ‘travel’.
Right now, still over seven and a half years before the tournament is due to kick off, an estimated 1200 workers have already lost their lives. Several thousand more will have done so by 2022. These are young, able bodied men dying in many cases of heart failure: dying because of working impossibly long hours in utterly inhospitable conditions. 1200 dead… because of football. Or rather, because of greed on the most abhorrent scale imaginable.
The American indictments do not cover the awarding of the 2018 or 2022 tournaments to Russia and Qatar respectively – but huge revelations, especially in the British press, have already been uncovered about both; and the Swiss authorities, largely thanks to complete access to the Michael Garcia report buried by FIFA, have now opened a full investigation. Ultimately, unless geopolitical events surrounding Ukraine substantially deteriorate between now and 2018, I doubt Russia are under serious threat; but make no mistake: Qatar, not before time, certainly are.
How, you might ask, when a Swiss court has already found that Havelange and his son-in-law, the disgraced former CBF President, Ricardo Teixeira, took tens of millions in kickbacks from the now defunct marketing company, ISL, then holder of the rights to the World Cup; when so many ExCo members, exhausted by scandal, have fallen by the wayside in recent years; when awarding the World Cup to Qatar (and the moving of it to winter 2022) has caused huge problems for European leagues and brought the game into total disrepute; and when Blatter himself is widely believed to have bribed his way to victory at the 1998 Presidential elections, and had expense claims for that contest which looked like this, have FIFA got away with it for so long?
Answer: because of (a) the continuing dependence of so many associations on Blatter’s largesse; (b) the governing body’s undoubted success in globalising and commercialising the sport; (c) FIFA remaining a private, entirely unaccountable organisation; (d) increasingly justifiable fears from developing nations of a European takeover; (e) Blatter’s own personal tactics; and (f) something else too. Something hugely important, which we’ll come to in a moment.
On point (e): in 1979, then Iraqi Vice-President, Saddam Hussein, launched a coup against his boss, Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr: holding the latter at gunpoint, and demanding he move aside. Six days later, the new President convened an emergency meeting of the ruling Ba’ath Party, which he ordered to be videotaped.
From the podium, Saddam declared in mock horror to have uncovered a plot against him; and read out the names of 68 individuals, all of whom were present in the room. They were immediately surrounded by security guards and taken away: while Saddam congratulated those remaining on their past and expected future loyalty. Within ten days, hundreds of entirely innocent men had been executed; and at Saddam’s demand, most of the murders were carried out by high-ranking Party members: including friends and even family of those killed.
What Saddam was doing was immediately making all those he had ‘spared’ complicit in the crimes which followed. This sowed paranoia among them: if they did not show absolute loyalty towards him, they would be next. Mistrust of each other, and constant in-fighting while the President floated above, were the inevitable result – as was the normalisation of violence and mass murder.
Of course, to the best of my knowledge, no-one in FIFA has ever murdered anyone; but Blatter’s strategy is that of the arch-dictator. By making his subordinates dependent on him, and bestowing powers and patronage, he invites them to battle each other; and when one amongst them is excommunicated, this only generates further paranoia, desperate pledges of allegiance to him, all the while gross corruption, kickbacks and fraud are normalised. Grondona’s death last summer – life is nothing without exquisite timing – probably made Blatter even more all-powerful, as well as clearing the path for the removal of troublesome and low-level subordinates from Latin America and the Caribbean.
So yesterday, looking more like a Groucho Marx tribute act than ever, there stood Teflon Sepp: speaking in hushed tones about the need to clean up the organisation from its supposed handful of bad apples (despite having been its leader or deputy since 1981), and giving divine thanks that he, the Dear Leader, had been charged with the great mission of guiding his children into the light. If he is deposed in the forthcoming months, he could always try stand-up comedy for a living: but for Sepp Blatter, divide and rule works. It always has.
So much, then, for FIFA’s internal machinations. But what of the response to it? Why, until Wednesday, had so little ever been done by the outside world? The answer is simple. Ingeniously, supposedly to protect the integrity of the sport, but really just to cover its own back, FIFA forbids any interference in football on the part of any domestic government. This means that if any seriously try to challenge it, it threatens to suspend the association and the national team: and with football the modern day opiate of the masses, what government worth its salt would ever risk such a thing?
Imagine, for a moment, if FIFA banned Uruguay from the World Cup because of government interference. If anything was ever going to provoke a revolution here, that certainly would. “Give us our football back!”, the people would demand; “how can you do this to us?”, they’d cry: not of FIFA, but of their elected politicians. And for football-mad Uruguay, read the football-mad world: most of it, anyway.
In that sense, it should scarcely be a surprise that the US, where the sport is gradually gaining a foothold but lacks anything like the enormous, emotional impact it enjoys across Europe, South America, Africa and swathes of Asia, was the country which finally set about bringing football’s governing body to account. The risks for the American government are vastly less; no domestic backlash would happen in its case.
The US, of course, was also hugely motivated by being snubbed for Qatar in 2022; but as football grows there, it is increasingly likely to want to play a part in its governance. Indeed, I think it’s perfectly plausible that to avoid complete meltdown, FIFA might end up taking the tournament off Qatar and give it to the 1994 hosts instead. Anything major in the forthcoming Swiss investigation would certainly give Blatter the excuse.
All of which brings me to a wider point. No individual in FIFA has ever had a more finely tuned nose for danger than its longtime President: meaning that Blatter actually voted for the US in the first place. In contrast, UEFA President Michel Platini and German legend Franz Beckenbauer both unconscionably voted for Qatar; while Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, recipient of £84,000 worth of Rolex watches from the Qataris, rather let the cat out of the bag when asked about the modern slave trade underpinning the organisation of the tournament:
“Move on. The media must be more careful: German industry has contracts there worth billions. Qatar was chosen, so just respect it, and accept it.”
Anyone who wants to know how Qatar became hosts of the 2022 World Cup should follow a trail of money and commerce spanning the individuals above and in particular, the German government. Qatar’s proposed gas pipeline through Syria, connecting it with Turkey and energy-dependent Europe, is not only a likely factor in the Syrian civil war, but has also helped it curry huge amounts of favour with European politicians and the European footballing world.
Ask yourself: why, in the face of an appalling death toll, which will only rise dramatically in the years ahead, have UEFA associations restricted themselves merely to complaining about the timing of the 2022 tournament? Why hasn’t a boycott been suggested? The answer almost certainly lies in the proposed pipeline, and myriad business and investment deals beyond that.
When decisions can be this cynical, this based on naked economics, geopolitics, and so immune to deplorable levels of human suffering, the idea that a post-Blatter FIFA will represent any kind of improvement is risible. His opponent today, backed by the whole of UEFA (and as has emerged overnight, the AUF), is Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan: a typical modern day football bureaucrat, himself heavily involved in Qatar’s successful bid. To be sure, he’d be a little more amenable to modest reform and European complaints; but that’s about it. If elected (which he won’t be), it’d be a straightforward case of: “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss”.
Those candidates offering genuine change – Michael van Praag of the Netherlands, or football legends Luis Figo and David Ginola – have already fallen by the wayside. Figo, possessing real business and administrative expertise, and contacts of the highest quality, publicly bemoaned what he discovered during his campaign; while Ginola’s brief candidacy, misunderstood by almost everyone (myself certainly included) was intended to shine a light on just what a joke the idea of real change in FIFA actually is. I’d still argue it did more harm than good overall; but changeFIFA, who have long been publicising the grotesque goings-on in Zurich, are owed an apology.
Platini? He’s every bit as bad as Blatter, and a European-dominated FIFA or breakaway would probably be even worse for the game than the status quo. It’d surely result in better governance; but would also lead inexorably to a takeover by the European clubs, formation of a European Super League, and sidelining of both international football and the developing world. It would, in other words, be roughly akin to India, Australia and England’s disastrous, greedheaded takeover of international cricket.
Developments this week have, meanwhile, been especially alarming for South America: which, after the fall of Figueredo, Havelange, Teixeira, Leoz, and – Casal’s greatest stroke of luck of all – the death of Don Julio, has been left with nobody of any real influence inside FIFA House. This is why rumours continue to persist of CONMEBOL losing half a qualifying place from the 2018 World Cup: which can only have been rendered vastly more likely by the arrest and indictment of so many individuals from this continent. Blatter ‘punishing’ CONMEBOL for this would shore up his support and play to the public gallery. It is, I would suggest, increasingly likely to happen.
Fully cognizant of which way the wind is blowing, Valdez has declared for al-Hussein, in a populist move designed to play on the continuing sense of grievance in Uruguay over Luis Suarez’ suspension from the Copa America. Yet even if all South American nations join the AUF, it’s unlikely to do them much good.
Thanks to Asian, African and Central American support, old Sepp is home and hosed for now… but with FIFA’s sponsors getting more and more anxious, Europe and the US on a mounting collision course with everyone else, and plea bargains likely to be offered to any of the indictees prepared to rat on him (and with nothing to lose, why wouldn’t they?), the ground is falling away from him piece by piece. The Mother Of All Crises has plenty of mileage to travel yet.
How will it all end? As ever, expecting FIFA to voluntarily reform is to ask turkeys to vote for Christmas: but whoever ultimately succeeds Blatter won’t change much. The best thing that can be hoped for is for 2022 to be taken off Qatar (and if not, for a mass boycott to be organised instead); but as long as football remains the big time, booming circus it is, it will always be run by those who put greed, enrichment and naked self-interest ahead of the broader good.
As it is in Uruguay, so it is around the world. As the disgraced Eugenio Figueredo and victorious Francisco Casal would surely both confirm: money doesn’t talk. It swears.