A dark week for football – but a great one for British journalism
Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport John Whittingdale reflects on the events of the week relating to FIFA.
Among football fans, FIFA has long been a byword for fraud, sleaze and corruption.
Supporters around the world may be fiercely tribal in their loyalty to club and country, but they are not blind to the fact that something is rotten in the heart of FIFA. They see all too clearly the contempt with which Sepp Blatter and his cronies treat the game they love, the shameless way the world’s most popular sport is exploited as little more than a cash cow for its avaricious administrators.
The regard in which Blatter is held was made obvious to millions of people three years ago, when he marched onto the Wembley turf at the end of the Olympic women’s football final, only to be greeted with a wall of boos from 80,000 supporters.
So although the arrest of seven senior FIFA officials shocked the world of football, the nature of the allegations against them surprised precisely no one.
Friday’s re-election of the utterly discredited Blatter was similarly received with a sense of despairing resignation. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, and FIFA executives don’t vote for presidential candidates promising an end to kickbacks and corruption.
But after a week in which such dark shadows were cast over the beautiful game, there are some glimmers of light.
The first is that the dam has finally broken. For years, critics – including the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, which I used to chair – have been demanding action, only for their calls to fall on deaf ears.
Now, thanks to the twin investigations by the FBI and Swiss attorney general’s office, FIFA executives will finally be forced to defend themselves in court. The global game’s governing body can no longer hide its dirty laundry under the bed and pretend it doesn’t exist.
The British government fully supports the action of the American and Swiss authorities. If any evidence of criminal wrongdoing in the UK emerges, we will expect the police and CPS to pursue it with the full force of the law.
By showing that law enforcement agencies around the world will not tolerate corruption, the arrests and raids will also serve as a powerful deterrent to future wrongdoing, both in football and in other international sports.
The second positive is that FIFA has now surely hit rock bottom. With seven of its most senior executives under arrest on bribery and racketeering charges and a president who has lost the few shreds of credibility he had left, it’s hard to see how things can get much worse for the organisation.
Fortunately, we have been here before and seen that there is a way back. Seventeen years ago the International Olympic Committee was in crisis following allegations of widespread corruption in the bidding process for the 2002 Winter Games.
In the wake of the scandal the organisation was forced to reform. The IOC’s long-serving president stepped down. Senior figures found guilty of corruption were expelled or sanctioned. Bids for future games, including London 2012, were much more open and transparent, exactly the kind of improvement we need to see at FIFA.
Was the Olympic scandal on the same scale as the crisis engulfing football? No. Is the 2015 incarnation of the IOC above criticism of any kind? Of course not. But it has come a long, long way from the sorry state it was in at the turn of the century, and it has shown that it is possible to come back from the brink.
Finally, we have cause to celebrate the contribution of British journalists, first among them the Insight team at the Sunday Times.
When FIFA’s house of cards began to tumble this week, it was because the base had been kicked away by Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert, whose investigations for the Sunday Times into the scandal surrounding the bidding process for the right to host the 2018 World Cup were first published nearly five years ago, followed shortly after by their counterparts at the BBC’s Panorama programme.
In the face of legal threats and the omertà-like code of football administrators, they refused to back down and doggedly pursued their story, pulling at the tiniest of threads until the full scale of the scandal was dragged into the light. I was proud to help them as Chairman of the Select Committee by accepting the evidence they submitted to us for publication under Parliamentary Privilege giving them protection against legal action.
If real change really does come to FIFA, football fans the world over will long be grateful to the tenacious British journalists who helped to make it happen.
Yesterday’s FA Cup final was the 134th, a reminder that football was around long before Sepp Blatter and his merry men arrived on the scene. And it will still be here long after he is gone. The greed of a few men cannot kill the beautiful game, but left unchecked it could leave it damaged beyond repair. That cannot be allowed to happen.
If FIFA is going to start following the road to redemption, it has to embrace real change. And if Blatter genuinely cares about the game he professes to love, he has to lead that change by resigning as president.
Blatter’s claim that he could not possibly be aware of institutional wrongdoing at the organisation he controls so tightly lacks credulity even by his standards. It is time for him to go.
If he doesn’t go? This week some of the game’s most respected figures have raised the prospect of world football turning its back on FIFA. Michel Platini has talked of European nations boycotting future World Cups if Blatter refuses to stand down. No options should be ruled out.
While none of us wants to see things go that far, Platini’s dramatic decision to raise the nuclear option of a boycott underlines the sheer scale of this scandal and the lamentable failure of FIFA’s leadership to deal with it.
One of the few certainties is that the era of bribery and backhanders must end. FIFA must finally begin to act, in the words of its much-derided motto, “for the good of the game”. And that can only begin to happen if Sepp Blatter steps aside.
- A version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Times on 31 May 2015