So Where Do We Stand?
When your sport is being paid attention to by people who don’t watch sports, something major is going on. Something has occurred that, in all likelihood, is reaching a fair distance beyond the confines of the field. It doesn’t get much more major than a decades-long scandal of global scope that reaches up to the very highest levels of an organization that has shown proven ability to bring governments to heel the world over.
The FIFA scandal has delivered, on a daily basis, headline after headline placing the game and the world at large in horrific intersection, sometimes making it distressingly unclear which is having a bigger influence on the other. So far, as multiple nations conduct their own investigations into FIFA’s various doings, we’ve seen things such as this:
*14 people, all from North and South America, were indicted by the United States, with the arrest of seven of them by Swiss authorities in Zurich on May 27, the action that set everything else in motion. Six of them have been issued red notices by Interpol, essentially international wanted posters.
*CONMEBOL headquarters in Luque, Paraguay, a suburb of the capital Asuncion, is under investigation as to how, exactly, the Paraguayan legislature granted it the status of an embassy, literally placing soccer officials above Paraguayan law when conducting business on the grounds. The theory is that someone slipped it into an unknown piece of legislation somewhere and nobody but CONMEBOL noticed. The legislature is currently working to strip the headquarters of its embassy status, which it’s had since 1997; president Horacio Cartes has pledged to sign it if and when it reaches his desk. Two former presidents of CONMEBOL are among those indicted, Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay (1986-2013), who has been placed under house arrest by local authorities; and Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay (2013-14), who was arrested in Zurich.
*Germany was found by German paper Die Zeit to have entered into an arms deal with Saudi Arabia in order to secure their vote for hosting the 2006 World Cup over South Africa.
*FIFA Executive Committee member Ismail Bhamjee of Botswana was captured on tape by reporters posing as lobbyists stating that Morocco, not South Africa, won the vote to host the 2010 World Cup, but that behind closed doors, the count was altered to favor the South Africans. Bhamjee may have been lying. It’s not quite sure. Bribes were the order of the day in securing votes; Jack Warner accepted bribes from both countries and voted for South Africa because their bribe was bigger.
*After Ireland lost in controversial fashion to France in a final-round qualifier to participate in the 2010 World Cup, with France scoring off a handball by Thierry Henry, FIFA arranged a $10 million bribe to Ireland’s national federation to make the problem go away.
*Reporters in the Cayman Islands have fled to Florida after reporting on the actions of indicted executive Jeffrey Webb after premier Alden McLaughlin called their reporting “reckless” and saying that the reporting “must be interpreted as a treasonous attack on the Cayman Islands and on all the people of Cayman.”
Do not for a second think the worst is over. We have only begun to unpack the myriad horrors that those in charge of the world’s most popular sport can inflict upon that world, in addition to slavery in Qatar, demolished homes in nearly any neighborhood in the world picked as the site of a new stadium needed for a World Cup, and virtually anything done at the whim of a dictator whose team has gotten enough of a winning streak going. This will continue for some time, and to make any kind of proclamation about where the sport of soccer will stand after all is said and done is rushed at best. We don’t know where we’ll stand at the end. We don’t know where we stand now, really. Who will head FIFA at the end of the day? We don’t know. What will that person do once in charge? We don’t know. What will be their ability to do what they want to do? We don’t know. Will we have true change for the better? We don’t know.
It’s not a satisfying answer, sure. But it’s the answer we have.
The best we can do is make some informed guesses. Soccer as a sport isn’t going away. We can be sure of that. What’s going on is off the field, not on it. Teams can still find and play each other and the results of those games are still held up as fundamentally valid. If the problems had brought the results of games into disrepute, then we’d be into existential territory, the place boxing and cycling found themselves. But while match-fixing is itself a problem in the sport, it’s not the problem on our hands here. You’ll still have your favorite club, they’ll still play your rivals. Even if we get to the point that FIFA dies and some other organization takes its place, all the clubs, or constituent nations at least, will have to do is swap affiliations and continue on with their day.
Who will lead FIFA? Well, Sepp Blatter isn’t entirely out yet. He still has the seat. So at the risk of sounding obvious, until Sepp is out, Sepp is in. But assuming we do have an election, I have a feeling it will, once again, settle into a two-candidate race. On one side, I have fairly good reason to believe that Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein of Jordan, Blatter’s just-defeated opponent, will stand again. On the other, I would peg his opponent as Issa Hayatou of Cameroon, president of CAF since 1988 and the man who Blatter defeated in 2002. A candidate who appears to be too closely aligned to Blatter will be placed under immediate intense scrutiny, and if you’re a European name, such as Michael Platini, that’s a problem. But Blatter’s base has been Africa and Asia, whose leaderships fiercely maintain that Blatter has recognized that the poorer nations of the soccer world, at least, exist. (Whether he’s actually helped anyone in those nations except those leaders… that’s another matter.)
It’s my personal wild speculation that Africa, worried that what the rest of the world would see as a ‘reform’ candidate would in their mind be one that shoves Africa into a corner to rot, may opt to go for direct control, ensuring their seat at the table for the foreseeable future, and the obvious candidate if they go that route is Hayatou. This, of course, is only if Hayatou avoids the hammer himself. He’s certainly lobbed his fair share of accusations at the investigators, and the investigators certainly have reason to lob right back.
The big question on the minds of most is what will happen with Russia and Qatar. What happens there will partially depend on who takes the helm, but I feel pretty safe in saying that the 2018 World Cup will remain in Russia for one simple reason: it’s already too late. In December, I noted how the length of time from a World Cup final to the ensuing qualifiers shrinks by the campaign. We are already on the road to Moscow, and 15 countries have already gone off into the ditch. Nepal, Pakistan, Mongolia, Macau, Brunei, Sri Lanka, Bahamas, British Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat, and Jeffrey Webb’s Cayman Islands have been defeated. Indonesia has been kicked out for government interference; Zimbabwe has been kicked out for failing to pay fired coach Jose Claudinel a severance fee.
The host gets an automatic bid, and as such, does not participate in qualifiers. Stripping Russia of the hosting gig would create something of a logistical nightmare. We’ve only budgeted for one automatic bid, and the new host would have to have it. Can you slot Russia into qualifying (or do you boot them out, which doesn’t really seem fair to the team itself)? Can you slot them in even if you reallocate to a non-European host? What happens to the new host’s continent’s qualifying scenario? To swap them out cleanly would have to be done before the global main qualifying draw on July 25 in St. Petersburg. We know Blatter will be in charge when that draw takes place, and thus, Russia will be the host on the day of the draw. After that draw, a host swap becomes calamitous to pull off. By the time any new host took their seat, we’d be so far along in qualifying that nobody will be able to figure out how to rip through enough remaining red tape to make it work in time. They’ll hem, haw, campaign, rip clothes, gnash teeth, threaten to boycott, but there will be a World Cup in Russia in 2018.
Qatar is another matter entirely. Qatar has been the poster child of everything that’s led to our current scenario. Russia, people could on some level forgive, because at least Russia has a competent national team and something of a soccer pedigree. Qatar has nothing. The fight to replace Blatter could very quickly turn into the fight for Qatar as well, as any reform leader would almost certainly go after Qatar as a central part of the reform.
But not even that’s entirely certain.
We don’t know. There’s a lot we don’t know. The only way to really know what will happen is to hang on for the ride.