Is Sepp Blatter really Stalin or Saddam Hussein?

Those seeking the moral highground are taking football hype to a new low.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

As the crusade against FIFA and corruption in international football continues to gather pace and speed ahead, there is a risk of a few things getting left behind in the rush to judgement. For example:

Sepp Blatter is not the Berlin Wall, Stalin or Saddam Hussein

When FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced that he would quit his post, days after being re-elected to serve a fifth term, the Western football, political and media elites responded as if they had won a war – or at least sunk the Bismarck. The near-hysterical reaction to the (postponed) resignation of a sporting bureaucrat illustrated again the overinflated role attached to football today – and the ridiculous way that the crusade against FIFA corruption has been blown up into a proxy war to boost the West’s flagging moral authority.

When 17 serving and former top FIFA officials were arrested in Switzerland on suspicion of corruption, on the eve of FIFA’s Zurich congress, a leading light in Australia’s failed bid to win the 2022 World Cup made headlines by comparing Blatter’s dodgy outfit to the crumbling Soviet empire at the end of the Cold War. ‘FIFA is like the Berlin Wall’, declared ‘FIFA whistleblower’ Bonita Mersiades, ‘it is not a question of if it will come down, but when’.

Just days later, when Blatter surprised all the experts by announcing his intention to resign, many responded with the same mix of shock and awe with which they greeted the unexpected fall of the Wall. The news was all about how the ‘tyrant’ had been dramatically brought down, sunk or shot out of the sky by the American FBI investigation into FIFA corruption. Even the sober Financial Times caught the war fever, with an article comparing Blatter to Fidel Castro, Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein, boasting that ‘like Saddam Hussein, Mr Blatter has been removed by a crusading US’.

We know that football punditry is the home ground of hyperbole, but this stuff (from ‘serious’ politicians and commentators, as well as sporting hacks) is well over-the-top. Everybody agrees that corruption is rife in FIFA (although we are still at the stage of allegations and indictments, rather than proof and convictions), and rumours are circulating that the ‘autocrat’ Blatter has stepped down because the criminal investigations launched by the FBI and the Swiss authorities are getting closer to the door of his oft-cited five-star hotel suite.

But, so far as we are aware, no whistleblower has to date credibly suggested that Blatter tortured, imprisoned and executed his political opponents, used chemical weapons against his own people, or presided over the deaths of millions through repression and starvation. So what are the widespread excited comparisons with rulers such as Castro, Saddam or Stalin all about?

Perhaps the FT’s remark about the FIFA president sharing Saddam Hussein’s fate in being deposed ‘by a crusading US’ inadvertently gives the game away. After all, Saddam (a former ally of the US and the West, which turned a blind eye to his gassing of the Kurds) was set up in 2003 as the ultimate international villain – worse than Hitler and Stalin, according to the Bush regime – to justify the crusade to invade Iraq and reassert the authority of the US-led Western alliance. In a farcical caricature of that disaster, the FBI and their cheerleaders are trying to use Blatter the bureaucrat as a pathetic, ageing whipping boy against which to show their strength. We can’t beat a few young gunmen from ISIS, but we can still kick old Blatter’s fat FIFA ass!

They may not want to pursue the mad comparisons between Saddam and the ‘tyrant’ Blatter too far, however. As even the FT was forced to conclude: ‘If there is one thing we have learnt since Saddam went, it is that getting rid of a tyrant is just the start. Often, in fact, the outing turns out to be the sweetest moment of a sorry tale.’

The Qatar World Cup is no more or less dodgy than any other – even the Guardian backed it!

Much of the focus of the anti-corruption crusade now is on the decisions of the FIFA executive to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and, most particularly, to grant the right to host the 2022 tournament to the tiny desert state of Qatar. How could anybody, scoff the FIFA-bashers, have ever believed that giving the World Cup to Qatar was anything other than the most blatant Blatter fix? It was so obviously, to crib the FBI’s phrase, ‘the World Cup of fraud’!

In fact, granting the World Cup to Qatar looks no more dodgy than the other politically motivated and financially oiled deals to send the tournament to new continents and countries. Since the first World Cup in 1930 was controversially staged in Uruguay, leading to a boycott by many European states, politics and money have always played a prominent part in allocating the tournament. This went further from the 1980s onwards, when FIFA president João Havelange and his successor Sepp Blatter embarked on a policy of attracting big corporate sponsors for the World Cup, and used their resources to build a power base in the developing world.

Part of FIFA’s strategy involved staging the World Cup finals in developing football nations, away from the old powers of Europe and Latin America. In this respect, Blatter’s ‘finest hour’ was bringing the 2010 World Cup to South Africa, the first time it had been held on a continent that was to become one of his firmest supporters. We now know, however, that the votes to give South Africa the World Cup were only secured with some ‘questionable’ financial deals and handouts – and even then, insiders now claim, Morocco actually won the secret vote to stage the finals. It was a political and financial stitch-up. The only difference from Qatar was that it was far easier to celebrate granting the World Cup to the internationally popular, football-mad nation of post-Apartheid South Africa than to the widely disliked, resource-rich but rights-poor, Gulf statelet.

Even then, however, many of those now up in arms about dodgy deals fell for the FIFA line about making the World Cup ‘truly global’, and backed the Qatari bid. On Saturday, Giles Smith, a sports columnist at The Times, reminded us that in 2010, before the vote, football aristocrat Sir Alex Ferguson went on a freebie to the desert and announced that ‘I would back the Qatar bid. Qatar have got the finances and the purpose. Above all, they’ve got the vision.’

What is more, the Guardian, alleged voice of UK (if not global) liberalism, agreed with Fergie. After accompanying him on the trip, the paper noted Qatar’s ‘peerless’ security and ‘convenience’, praised the ‘inspired piece of Qatari altruism’ that meant the stadia would be packed up after the finals and sent off ‘to a poor, hot country’ (perhaps, observes Smith wryly, ‘one of the ones the labourers on those stadiums come from – now, that’s giving back’), and urged FIFA to ‘muster the courage to hand Qatar 2022’. What is now decried as blatant corruption was, five years ago, praised as a courageous act.

We might also recall, of course, that UEFA’s Michel Platini, supposed scourge of FIFA’s dodgy global dealings, voted for Qatar; Blatter did not. The attempt to turn Qatar 2022 into the universally despised symbol of FIFA evil involves the sort of rewriting of recent history that even Blatter’s spin doctors might have had trouble getting away with.

When Orwell said sport was ‘war minus the shooting’, he surely didn’t mean this nonsense

Football has long been used as a substitute forum in which to play out international conflicts, whether on the pitch or in the global political arena. Amid the interwar tensions of the 1930s, for example, Britain’s Foreign Office gave the England team dossiers on their opponents, seeing international matches as an extension of imperial diplomacy. (This of course did not prevent the British government ordering the England players to give the Nazi salute before a match against Germany in Hitler’s Berlin in 1938.)

George Orwell famously described sport as ‘war minus the shooting’. That phrase came to mind again over the past couple of weeks, watching the way that the crusade against FIFA corruption has been exploited by politicians and pundits in order to pursue their wider geopolitical agendas. Look how quickly many in Western politics and the media sought to turn the spotlight on to the award of the 2018 World Cup to their current bête noir, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, even though nobody has as yet produced hard evidence of corruption there. Andy Burnham, leading candidate to be the next leader of the UK Labour Party, even demanded that England should go it alone and boycott not Qatar 2022, but Russia 2018, because of ‘the alleged corruption in FIFA and then the situation with Russia and the Ukraine’.

Things quickly went further still, with David Cameron, the UK’s Conservative prime minister, seizing upon the FIFA scandal as a rare chance to scramble on to the moral highground and look down not only at Russia, but also at the entire non-Western world. Cameron’s big speech at the weekend’s meeting of the G7 group of economic powers urged world leaders to tackle FIFA, not just to clean up football, but also as the start of a global crusade against ‘the cancer of corruption’. He wants the sort of international scrutiny and policing now being applied to FIFA to be turned on to allegedly corrupt governments and institutions in Africa and the developing world. Perhaps the FBI should just arrest all of Africa’s leaders.

What we are witnessing in the crusade against FIFA corruption is something more than the traditional use of football for political purposes, as an extension of diplomacy and power politics. It looks more like football being used as a substitute for global diplomacy, being brought on to fill the gap where proper international politics ought to be. Why else would the FBI suddenly be so interested in ‘soccer’, other than as a massive displacement activity from its failure to tackle serious problems and a rare chance to strut about on the international stage decked out in the sporting colours of righteousness?

So, maybe the West can’t get rid of Putin – despite all of its dangerous meddling in Ukraine – but ‘we’ can call for a boycott of the World Cup in Russia. Maybe Britain can’t dominate its old empire in Africa or Asia anymore, but ‘we’ can use the FIFA scandal as a pseudo-stick with which to beat those troublesome upstart natives. It is global soccerism gone mad.

All of this political grandstanding seems so transparent, one might hope that the media cynics would take a more critical attitude, as they tend to do with everything our political elites attempt at home these days. Yet so desperate are they to find a new international bogeyman, a global folk devil to rail against, that too many in the Western media appear to have left their critical faculties back in the changing room and conformed to the line that Blatter equals Saddam, and FIFA equals biggest threat since global warming.

None of this, as I noted here last week, has much to do with football, the future of which looks less than champion, whether left in the hands of FIFA bureaucrats or FBI agents. Not for the first time, we might ask the assorted users and abusers of the global game – can we have our ball back, mister?

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His forthcoming book, Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech?, will be published by Harper Collins on 18 June 2015. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.

Picture by: Wikimedia Commons/Marcello Casal Jr/ABr

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today