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armchair centre back :: the sting

i'm technically one "world wide wednesdays" post in arrears, but come on. how could i not post something about the fifa clusterf**k that unfolded yesterday? [and continues to generate aftershocks in its wake: as i'm typing this sentence, i just saw a news bulletin from the bbc that blot evil overlord blot on humanity fifa president sepp blatter has said that he cannot be held responsible for the current scandal. the buck stops somewhere else, apparently.] the whole thing feels like a sport-themed remake of goodfellas, but it's actually happening. and there's a lot more money involved.

like most fans of the sport of soccer, i'm no fan of fifa's. last year, i selected them as my "biggest loser" of the world cup and with good reason: despite the tournament having been a success on many fronts, it exposed the organising body for the corrupt kleptocracy that it is. i'm a firm believer that the attention given to the ugliness of much of the preparations- forced evictions, brutal police crackdowns, squandering of public money- helped speed up the investigation whose first results we saw yesterday. so like most fans, this is a pretty happy event, tinged with the cartoonish weirdness that always seems to linger around the world's most popular sport.

what weirdness, you ask? [or maybe you didn't, but i'm going to tell you anyway.] well, for starters, there's the idea that america is doing this. aren't they the one country in the world that doesn't even like soccer?

and, just to make ornery progressives like me even more uncomfortable, it turns out that america's jurisdiction in this matter may stem from provisions of the u.s.a.p.a.t.r.i.o.t. act [i've only today discover is an acronym: united and strengthening america by providing adequate tools required to intercept and obstruct terrorism act]. the act is better known for its controversial sections allowing warrantless surveillance, but other sections of it strengthened government's ability to collect information from financial institutions [and put a greater onus on banks to scrutinize transactions] and gave them greater powers to act against groups when any portion of an illegal financial transaction took place within the united states. so it doesn't matter that fifa operates largely outside the u.s. if they any part of the malfeasance took place in america, america reserves the right to bring charges. [and in a nice little cold war flashback moment, vladimir putin has accused the united states of meddling in affairs that don't concern it in an effort to penalize russia.]  

then, of course, there's the "goodfellas" aspect of the story, which is that the current arrests are brought to you in part by one of the gang members rolling over on the others. american chuck blazer, known for being a fifa bigwig and for pocketing almost literally tonnes of money from his work with them, got into a spot of tax trouble with the internal revenue service and, in order to avoid going to jail himself, apparently decided to cooperate with the authorities à la henry hill. [except that henry hill never got chased down fifth avenue while riding a mobility scooter.]

the spectacle of of fifa officials being escorted from their ritzy hotel in zurich [hey! i stayed just a few blocks from there when i visited switzerland!] would have been strange enough, but it seems outright surreal when you have people rushing to keep the arrested hidden with bed sheets. it's not like we don't know who they are.

strangest of all may be fifa's insistence on carrying on as if absolutely nothing has happened. they're proceeding with their annual general meeting, and one assumes that there will just be an awkward pause when it comes to the point in the agenda when someone can't do their presentation because they haven't been bailed out yet. indeed, sepp blatter seems determined to go ahead with the election of the organization's president, although that's possibly because up until tuesday, no one thought there was much of a chance that he could lose that election, but now he figures that his odds are only going to get worse the longer the vote is delayed. no, wait, i've reconsidered. the strangest part is probably that the person most likely to rescue the organization from the control of corrupt de facto royalty...

... is an actual royal. prince ali bin al-hussein of jordan may have lived a life of extreme privilege, but he has already made a name for himself as a reformer within the sport. he became vice president of fifa after the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 world cups to russia and qatar respectively and pushed for the publication of a supposedly damning report on the selection process. he has expressed a desire to increase the profile of women's soccer [the fifa women's world cup is happening next month in canada, but you probably haven't heard a lot about it] and that of asian nations.

up until yesterday, his bid for president looked doomed to failure, and this would likely have seen him bounced from fifa altogether; the asian football federation's president is the much more conservative sheikh salman bin ibrahim al khalifa [a nice gentleman who's been accused of having some of his national players tortured after they participated in pro-democracy rallies], who promptly rescinded the federation's support for prince ali as their representative. in order to maintain his position, the prince would have to be confirmed by the blatter-led executive of fifa and, since a lot of them aren't especially welcoming to ali's reformist ways, that can be added to the universal list of things that ain't gonna happen.

of course, despite the arrests, there's certainly no guarantee that blatter is going to be defeated. fifa has 209 member nations- more than the u.n.- and every single one of them has a vote. so the european football federation, uefa, can say that they are backing prince ali [which they are and which is hardly surprising given that they didn't even back blatter last time, when he ran unopposed], but that doesn't mean that they're delivering the votes of all their members. [russia, for instance, are opposed to the idea of having the 2018 bidding process investigated and possibly reopened.] the huge number of asian votes will likely be split, with some supporting the prince, but with conservatives like sheik salman supporting blatter. [the asian football federation has officially pledged support to blatter.] vote-rich africa is a blatter stronghold, although there's a possibility that hussein could pick up a couple of stray votes from countries who are not necessarily unhappy with blatter, but with his senior vice president and right hand, african confederacy chairman issy hayatou. [specifically morocco, who were angry that they were stripped of the africa cup of nations earlier this year, having asked for it to be postponed until the ebola epidemic had been brought under control, and togo, who were furious that they were suspended for two continental competitions, due to their decision to withdraw from the 2010 africa cup of nations after the team was the victim of a terrorist attack in angola.] the americas will be... weird. blatter was assuming that theirs were safe votes, but all of those arrested are among his staunchest backers [and all are from the americas], so it becomes a little unclear what will happen.

one of prince ali's most vocal supporters and one of blatter's most impassioned detractors is argentinian football demigod diego maradona. maradona isn't a member of fifa, so his opinion carries no official weight, but it absolutely holds resonance with fans. likewise, brazilian president dilma rousseff claimed she was happy to hear of the arrest of josé maria marin, the former head of the brazilian football federation and a supporter of brazil's former military dictatorship [who had had rousseff tortured]. a poll of soccer fans found that 80% of them did not even want blatter to run for another term, including 99% of those surveyed in chile, a possible indication that south american delegates may seek to distance themselves from him. [again, as i'm typing this, the brazilian delegate to fifa's convention has apparently left switzerland. no word on why, but brazil is apparently looking into the possibility that some of what the u.s. investigation has turned up could be used to lay criminal charges in brazil as well.]

compounding things is the fact that a two-thirds majority is required to win the presidency outright. if that's not achieved, then there will be a run-off election, where a simple majority will suffice. those who support prince ali [notably uefa] have said that the vote should be postponed [since any delay will allow the realities of the criminal charges to sink in and more details of malfeasance to come out, which would increase support for the challenger], whereas those who support sepp blatter [including the asian, african and north and central american federations] want the vote to happen tomorrow as scheduled. assuming that it does go ahead, there's a very good chance that between africa, asia and the americas, blatter could coast right through. on the other hand, if he falls significantly short of the two-thirds vote on the first ballot, it's game on. if it looks like the reformers are making serious headway, a lot of nations are going to flinch at the thought of being on the wrong side of sporting history [lest it be counted against them in the future] and could likely be persuaded to switch sides.

my sense is that regardless of what happens with the election tomorrow, blatter is toast. whether he's voted out tomorrow or pushed out in a couple of years as the u.s. investigation broadens and catches people closer to him in its net, his days are numbered. all that remains to be determined now is if he can hang in long enough to be able to choose his own successor. if he's re-elected, there's a very real chance that uefa will pull its support from the 2018 world cup. that doesn't oblige european teams to leave [after all, it's a uefa country, russia, that will be hosting], but it makes it likely that a number of them will. and it opens the door for players to take a stance, which is likely to work against the powers that be: argentina might send a national team, but lionel messi, sergio aguero and gonzalo higuain might choose individually not to participate. [note: i'm not saying any of them would, i'm just using them as examples.]

ultimately, money talks and sponsors will have a great deal of say in how fifa conducts its business going forward. this is another reason why i think blatter is not long for the soccer world. already, visa and coca-cola, basically the two largest sponsors of anything are making noises that they're unhappy with how things are being handled. neither of those organisations is exactly progressive, but they are extremely conscious of having their brand tarnished by association. they aren't going to have a lot of patience with fifa on this, especially if they think that consumers in europe, asia, north and south america hold a negative opinion of soccer's governing body.

so what's my opinion [if you're interested]? i think that it may well be worth your while to take a nap right now and wake up before voting starts at 3:30am eastern time [9:30 local time in switzerland] so that you can watch things unfold. i guarantee you that prince ali's backers [uefa president michael platini chief among them] are on the phone every second, trying to convince delegates who have been on the outside that support for the candidate of change will ensure that they face the future from a position of strength, whereas blatter will be reminding them that they have already benefited from fifa's largesse. he's not wrong there, either: under his guidance, fifa has poured legitimate money into conferences outside of europe. i do think that prince ali has one crown jewel to offer, that will be difficult for any lover of the sport to reject without serious thought: he wants to expand the number of teams playing at the world cup. while that might allow those who have, in the past, narrowly missed out on competition to gain access, or it might allow smaller confederations to guarantee more places at the finals. the world cup is the most popular event of any kind in the whole world. having a greater chance of being represented at the final tournament is a very, very big carrot.

i also think that, one way or another, qatar is losing their world cup. the deaths of migrant workers and the de facto slavery in which those workers are held, the necessity of changing the tournament from summer to winter, which will disrupt all the major professional leagues, the fact that even sepp blatter apparently wasn't crazy about the idea of having fifa's grand prize bestowed there... i'm sorry qatar, but it's not happening. i hope that it happens sooner rather than later, since it will mean fewer people die, but either it's being relocated to spain/ portugal [if you asked a lot of soccer fans, i think they'd be ok with it being moved there semi-permanently] or possibly to the u.s. and canada.

finally, my guess is that if blatter doesn't win outright on the first ballot and doesn't come within close-striking distance [let's say over 60% of the total votes cast], he'll drop out. i can't imagine him actually hanging on to see if he can prevail in a tight battle, especially since the tide would appear to be going against him. but i don't know that he'll fall short on the first ballot. i'd like to believe that the fairytale prince has arrived to save the day, but i'm a born cynic and worry that he's likely to just slice open his lip on the glass coffin.

i do, however think that the american investigation, combined with the continued controversy surrounding fifa that there is an appetite for change, which is more than i would have said a year ago. that has to be a good thing.


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