‘No hiding place left’: an essay on Fifa for TheSecretFootballer.com

Below is a guest piece I wrote recently for The Secret Footballer’s site.

It’s an extended essay looking at Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert’s remarkable exposé of the Qatari World Cup bid. The book’s interesting for many reasons (not least that it has the same title as mine), but what really struck me about it was the overwhelming impression that Fifa is completely beyond help and can no longer be reformed from within.

If that’s really true, then what do we do?

No hiding place left

The Ugly Game: the Qatari plot to buy the World Cup by Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert

Sir Bert Millichip had a face incapable of lying. If you ever wondered what the life of a senior football administrator was like, one glance at his open, decent, baffled countenance would reassure you that it was as sedate and unglamorous as you’d hope. His was the face of a trustee of a local charity or the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of a minor county. It disclosed a life of meetings, some travel, a few awards ceremonies, more meetings, the occasional slap-up dinner and, if he was really lucky, a smart hotel room with a well-stocked minibar. It was no more than he deserved as someone doing important but thankless bureaucratic work for the football family.

Sir Bert is dead now, of course, and so, soon, will be Chuck Blazer, one of the poster boys of the next generation, the men who found the commercialisation of football could bring them rewards far greater and more exciting than the opportunity to dance with Princess Anne at a charity auction.

Look at Chuck’s face and it’s as candid as Bert’s. Like Dorian Gray but without a picture in the attic, Chuck is Giant Haystacks reincarnated as a real life heel, a corpulent mass of betrayal and greed, a human P11D, his own body advertising the innumerable benefits-in-kind that decades as the General Secretary of CONCACAF and a member of the Fifa ExCo brought him.

It’s into this world – the world of people like Chuck and the reviled Jack Warner and a hundred other lesser lights of Fifa of whom you haven’t heard – that ‘The Ugly Game’ takes us. Because last year, someone with access to the computers of Mohamed bin Hammam, the former Fifa bigwig and Qatari billionaire who bankrolled the purchase of the World Cup, leaked millions of documents to journalists Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert. They cast a net into this ocean of information and landed a leviathan. Here, lying on the quayside, blinking and gasping in the sun, is the truth of how modern football is run, how deals are made, how World Cups get awarded and how the men of Fifa live.

And what a beast it is, for this is an exhausting, numbing catalogue of schmoozing. Do these people never tire of drinks receptions, I found myself asking aloud. If I have dinner out three nights in a row on holiday I feel bloated, listless and hungry for nothing but tea and toast. Yet these men seem permanently to be travelling from one lavish event to the next, all five-starred and business class, for slap-up meals in the finest restaurants. Their indigestion must be horrendous.

In the first half of the book, particularly, it’s like reading the tell-all story of a music scene – late ‘70s prog rock, perhaps – unravelling under the weight of drugs and touring. Except these men never get the release of playing gigs. Instead they find themselves in yet another ballroom – in Luanda? Or is it Lagos tonight? Or Bangkok? – at yet another gala football event, hitting the Remy Martin until oblivion is achieved and another gold watch acquired.

The next day, they rouse themselves in their suites, head for the airport and, while waiting to board, email the host, thanking him for his gracious hospitality and politely reminding him of his promise to help them out with some unexpected professional expense. They then forward their personal bank account details to the host’s PA and settle down for their flight to the next junket.

This is a lifestyle that takes its toll. Small wonder that, before the FBI flipped him, Chuck Blazer could often be found segwaying round Central Park with a parrot on his shoulder. This 30-stone man, who needed a fleet of mobility scooters to get around, claimed that this was his ‘exercise’. He was apparently undisturbed by the lack of physical exertion or the fact the parrot repeatedly screamed insults at him, mimicking Chuck’s ex-wife, who’d taken custody of the bird and then taught it some choice vocabulary with which to taunt him.

‘The Ugly Game’ is the story of how men are ruined by power, money and ambition. It’s the story of how the unique malevolence and mendacity of Sepp Blatter created a culture where being a senior football administrator – a role that should be characterised by diligence and buttoned-up impartiality – became a destructive maelstrom of excess. What we learn is that these hundreds of national association heads aren’t cowed functionaries, terrified into compliance by an all-powerful dictator. Instead they are muscular gang bosses in their own right, marshalling their own affairs, taking a big cut of the pie and engaging in turf wars. Blatter, meanwhile, is the capo di tutti capi, double dealing, playing people off against each other and appeasing all with limitless access to Fifa’s golden trough.

But then perhaps you think you already know all this? Perhaps this is exactly how you imagined Fifa to be?

Well, knowledge is a slippery thing. Ask any football fan and they could confidently tell you they already knew Qatar had bought the World Cup. But press them as to how they knew and they might, at best, recall one of Jack Warner’s indiscretions or something murky about the Spanish bid. In truth, for most of us, the best evidence we had, until now, that Qatar had bought the World Cup was simply the knowledge that they were hosting it.

Quite how this came to be and whose idea it was (Blatter’s, originally) and who organised and paid for it (Bin Hammam on behalf of the Qatari Emir), wasn’t something we could say with certainty. Well, now we can. It’s all here. Every name, every brown envelope, every backroom deal, every broken promise – all laid out in this brilliant, patient, forensic autopsy of world football. And it’s not just pay offs and bribes we’re talking about, but gas concessions worth hundreds of millions of pounds to Thailand, a trade deal with Russia, sweeteners to France, including the financial resurrection of PSG, and dozens and dozens more favours and frauds. The Daily Mail recently calculated the total cost of this could run into the billions of pounds.

Blake and Clavert’s achievement in making sense of the leaked material is enormous, but the greater accomplishment is in how lucidly they’ve told the story. They’ve taken thousands of appointments, cash drops, meeting notes and bank transactions and turned them into a remarkably gripping account of Bin Hammam’s rise and fall.

So engaging is his story that, as he criss-crosses the globe greasing palms, his life’s work and reputation hanging on a fool’s errand, you actually start to root for him. There’s an urgency about the storytelling as the authors manage to extract excruciating tension from the unpromising materials available to them. Recalling a le Carré novel, but told from the perspective of one of Smiley’s antagonists, everything rests on the shadowboxing and psychological battles of men of import who seem to do little more than travel around the world and talk to each other, each time attempting to find some edge to be exploited or some temporary alliance to take them another step closer to their goal. No conversation is what it seems, everyone can be bought – thought never completely – and no one can be trusted.

This book isn’t just great journalism, it is novelistic in its plotting and frequently lovely in its writing. The final chapter, particularly, is a striking finish to the book, delivering something like a cinematic montage with the authors putting their quarries to bed around the world.

It’s also much funnier than you might expect; quite an achievement considering the relentless acts of corruption it recounts. Blake and Calvert produce great amusement, for example, by using Piers Morgan’s trick of printing verbatim the rebuttals and excuses of the people they’re bringing to book. (If even half the funds apparently required for training facilities, academies and artificial pitches had been used for their true purpose, many parts of the world would now be running desperately short of land and the Earth photographed from space would resemble a tennis ball.)

In a corrupt exchange the bribe giver must necessarily be worse morally than the bribe taker. But somehow it’s the heads of the national associations, continually abasing themselves for a few tens of thousands of dollars, who come across as grotesque. Bin Hammam is simply a man on a mission, James Bond with a chequebook instead of a Walther PPK.

And here lies one of the few faults of the book. It somehow manages to go easy on Bin Hammam and his methods, skipping too lightly over life in Qatar outside the governing class. There’s little representation of the plight of the vast majority of the population who are indentured foreign labourers. Certainly nothing compared with the insight we get into Bin Hammam’s personal torments.

In fact, so swift is his ascent and so smooth his manners that you might mistake Bin Hammam for a dotcom billionaire who rose without trace off the back of a good idea and plenty of gumption. In reality, though, as a construction magnate, he’s not just tainted by how he’s used his wealth but by how he’s acquired it. The same people who built his fortune may be building the infrastructure for the event. A World Cup not just built by slave labourers but bought by them too.

The authors might argue, perhaps rightly, that without a fuller, more sympathetic portrait of Bin Hammam, they’d not be able to bring their readers along with them. Certainly there’s a fascinating side to this complex, clever and frequently sympathetic man: a self-made billionaire and football fanatic who pulled himself up by his bootstraps but whose low birth would prevent his entry into government; a man given the ultimate poison chalice – an instruction from his Emir to bring the World Cup to the nation he loved and helped build; a man who seems to have no friends at all but can refuse people nothing; a man in whose pockets the whole of world football seems to have their hands; a man almost pitifully eager to please; a brilliant diplomat and strategist; a ruthless administrator; a man who bankrolled Blatter’s first two election victories, including staying by his side when his own son was seriously ill rather than abandoning his master on the eve of an important vote; a man who was entrusted with the highest responsibility by his Emir yet who felt himself unworthy to be in the same room as him; and, ultimately, a faithful servant thrown to the wolves by the two people he’d spent his life serving, never having failed either for a second but condemned now to professional and social ostracism.

Blatter himself doesn’t really emerge as a character until the last third of the book, following Bin Hammam’s stunning capture of the World Cup. Unsettled by his achievement, Blatter, apparently concerned that a man who could bring a World Cup to the desert might also be able to unseat him, determines to destroy Bin Hammam. He threatens to embarrass Qatar, perhaps ordering a revote, leaving Bin Hammam to make a valiant act of self-sacrifice: to safeguard the Qatari World Cup he would have to depose Blatter in the 2011 Fifa presidential election.

Like an exhausted gladiator called back to the arena, and knowing, you suspect, that he was overmatched and doomed, Bin Hammam shapes up to slay football’s biggest beast.

But, as happens when anyone challenges Blatter, Fifa’s arcane bureaucracy springs into action. A committee appears, ostensibly to investigate bribery allegations but really to warn off Bin Hammam. Bin Hammam retaliates by drawing Blatter into the investigation, giving himself time to fight on to the election. But then, just days before the final vote, he finds himself summoned to Blatter’s office. He walks in… and his world collapses. There, waiting for him, apparently joking and chatting with the Fifa president, are members of the Qatari royal family. He knows immediately that he’s finished. Threatened with a revote by Blatter, the Qataris have cut him loose. In return for him not running, Qatar would be allowed to keep the World Cup. And the ethics investigation? ‘If there is no candidate,’ says Blatter, ‘there is no committee’.

Bin Hammam withdraws graciously only for Blatter to deliver the coup de grâce and have the investigation run on anyway. Blatter is acquitted while he is found guilty and banned from football. Bin Hammam, who Blatter had once promised to make way for as Fifa president, had been betrayed again. And this time his defeat was final, because his footballing disgrace meant he would also be banished from Qatari high society.

The picture that emerges of Blatter’s is extraordinary – you can see why Fifa felt it had no choice but to hire a high grade Hollywood actor to portray him on screen, rather than some workaday thesp. He is loyal to no-one, manipulative, and committed to nothing other than perpetuating his own presidency. If you have no leverage and nothing to offer him, then you are at his mercy – and he is not a merciful man. If you cross Blatter in a dream, you had better wake up and apologise at the General Assembly.

While corruption appears to be at its worst in Africa and CONCACAF, the book readily shows that probity is an alien concept in virtually all corners of the footballing world. Barely an association gets away clean, with England at best able to present itself as naïve bunglers and much of Europe considerably worse.

Perhaps the greatest sadness of the book, though, is the parade of great names who are drawn into the mire. We see Archbishop Tutu auctioning his support in return for charitable donations, George Weah getting a brown envelope with fifty grand, and all-time greats Michel Platini and Franz Beckenbauer doing the ExCo dance of the seven veils in the lead up to World Cup voting day.

And what of Russia, ranked second last behind Qatar by Fifa’s own inspectors for the quality of its bid? Well, for all their globetrotting savior faire, Bin Hammam and many of the more pliable leeches attached to world football appear not to know what I was told in my first week at work: never write down in an email anything you would not want read out in court. Russia we must assume – though the authors don’t allege it – bought their World Cup too. What they did, though, was not get caught, not get careless and, when it was over, they destroyed their bid team’s computers. (Perhaps this failure by Qatar to cover its tracks is what people meant when they criticised the award of the tournament to a country ‘without an established football culture’.)

In the final analysis, is the award of the competition to Russia any less corrupt or abominable than to Qatar? I don’t think so and I suspect we’ll actually never get to see Qatar 2022. Instead, the 2018 World Cup may come to be seen as Fifa’s Munich Olympics; a moment when even the best paid puppets of demagogues and dictators could no longer pretend that political considerations should play no part in sport. (It’s worth noting with this parallel, that, when Germany was awarded the 1936 games, the Nazis had not yet come to power. Fifa, unlike the IOC, knew fine well the character of the regimes to which they awarded their greatest prize.)

It’s clear, at the end of all this, that world football is doomed in its present state. For this is the genius of Sepp Blatter: he has so corrupted football that there is no one clean to challenge him. Instead, we’re left with the monstrous spectacle of him tottering on, Mugabe-like, until he’s carried out of Zurich in a box.

But at least now we know; now there can be no argument about the correct course of action. Because, for all its many virtues, for all its wonderful writing and penetrating clarity, the book’s primary value is this: come May, when the presidential election is held, no one now can claim they didn’t know.

The corruption, maladministration and ethical violations exhaustively detailed here are so numerous and so egregious that even a determined policy of wilful blindness isn’t credible. At every level, in all its operations, FIFA is so bent that everyone is implicated and the only reasonable assumption about anyone who continues to support Blatter, especially anyone who votes for him, is not just that they are unfit for office but that they have personally benefited from his catastrophic regime of corruption.

Only two questions remain, then: how are we going to smash Fifa apart and rebuild football? And what are we waiting for?

Because, with the publication of this book, it’s not just Fifa officials who can’t claim ignorance any longer. It’s all the rest of us too.

 

Martin Calladine is a freelance writer and the author of a wonderful book – “The Ugly Game: How Football Lost Its Magic And What It Could Learn From The NFL’ – which came out before Blake and Calvert’s similarly named book but has been tragically overlooked. If you enjoyed this, why not buy both books? That way I’ll have the money to write more things you might like. Oh, and please spread the word, too. Thanks a lot.

 

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