FIFA’s Deepening Crisis: Global Soccer’s “Arab Spring”?

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The line may well earn a spot aside infamous expressions of denial like Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook”, Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”, and MLB star Roger Clemmons’ suggestion a fellow pitcher “misremembers” their discussions about The Rocket’s use of banned steroids. Like  other momentous caught-in-the-headlights statements, FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s incredulous “Crisis? What is the crisis?” response May 30 to the maelstrom engulfing the world soccer authority has already become a darkly risible catch-phrase of disingenuous tranquility in the face of evident calamity. Indeed, given the gravity of the suspicions and allegations now facing football’s global organization, the real question now seems to be whether panicked insiders will seek to salvage FIFA with a long overdue, urgently needed reform-cum-coup from the top; or whether yet another effort to maintain the status quo will condemn the tottering outfit to collapse under mounting charges of  corruption.

Given FIFA’s history, the sad, safe money is probably on the latter scenario—as the Alfred E. Newman “What, Me Worry?” stand Blatter himself took Monday seemed to suggest.  “Football is not in a crisis, only some difficulties,” a defiant, often angry Blatter told a press conference amid a growing storm of controversy over corruption charges and his own looming, rival-depleted re-election bid Wednesday. “Starting on Wednesday, the football family has the opportunity, and they have to take it, if they want to restore the credibility of FIFA, and if they want to restore it with me.”

The jarring nature of that statement is less a product of Blatter’s command of English, and more a reflection of the twisted functioning and thinking of FIFA that’s now preventing it from responding credibly to the serious charges confronting it. Without going into all the detail already deftly spelled out here and here, FIFA now faces by far the biggest crisis in its 107 year history as world soccer’s governing body. Its total domination of the game’s organization and evolution, its lack of transparency and accountability, and the enormous amounts of money it draws from the sport have generated rising–yet  thus far unsubstantiated–accusations of corruption and cronyism for nearly 20 years. Now those charges are surging anew and coming from multiple directions with such force that they’re producing unprecedented murmurs of dissent among member national football associations and from within FIFA central command alike. Whether those may give rise to a veritable revolt capable of bringing down soccer’s global government should be known the coming days.

The current unrest grew from claims FIFA executive Mohammed Bin Hammam gave money to fellow officials for their support of his bid to unseat Blatter in Wednesday’s presidential election. Forced from the race pending an ethics inquiry, Bin Hammam retorted that if the allegations were true, Blatter himself would have known about them and should have denounced them (not an illogical claim, since the accusations against Bin Hammam came from FIFA’s senior ranks, whose members have since threatened to unveil even darker secrets before long). Those suspicions prompted FIFA’s ethics committee to also temporarily suspend Blatter, though that decision was reversed to allow the election to take place Wednesday despite rising calls for its postponement. In addition to the somewhat iffy democratic fundamentals of a single-candidate race taking place amid such controversy, backers of a delay in voting also point out Blatter’s 2002 re-election effort was similarly plagued by scandal and corruption allegations. In addition to all of that internal wrangling are enduring graft charges maintaining Qatar  “bought” the rights to host the 2022 World Cup from FIFA at the expense of other nations considered more likely to win the spot.

But for all the repeated, resounding, and often credible-sounding claims by journalists, soccer experts, and national politicians of reoccurring corruption within FIFA, no outside efforts to substantiate such allegations have ever come up with enough evidence–much less smoking guns–to prove them. Partial pictures produced have indeed looked bad, but no independent digging has ever managed to make charges against the organization or Blatter personally stick. FIFA’s own internal inquiries, meanwhile, have always produced clean bills of health–though many observers liken those self-inspections to the kind banks and hedge funds repeatedly issued showing everything was just peachy even as financial markets began to implode. Blatter, though, still champions FIFA’s credibility.

“I think FIFA is strong enough that we can deal with our problems inside FIFA,” he said Monday, before scolding journalists who had flocked to the organization’s Zurich’s headquarters for trying to fabricate evidence of a crisis Blatter promised doesn’t exist.

So what happens now in this surreal stand-off between an alarmed world watching FIFA sink in a swamp of scandal, and Blatter denying anything’s amiss? The next few days will be critical. Although Blatter’s strategy appears aimed at winning another mandate and swiftly battening down FIFA’s flapping hatches from within, fulfilling that plan will be easier said than done. A serious threat looms that Asian delegates will boycott Wednesday’s vote to protest Bin Hammam’s treatment.On Tuesday, England’s Football Association called for the presidential vote to be suspended, and appealed to the other 207 FIFA members to join it in abstaining if balloting does take place Wednesday. England says it wants the delay so one or several reform-minded candidates can enter the race.

Thrusting a clean-handed outsider to the presidency seems like a quaint notion given the utter lock insiders have had on FIFA’s operation over the years. Yet the idea of using reform as a means of salvaging the imperiled organization is one some of its own executives are warming to. “I think the reform has to be very deep,” Les Murray, an Australian member of FIFA’s ethics committee, told the Sydney Morning Herald. “In all reality, there probably has to be complete structural and also constitutional reform.”

But for that to  become possible, the simmering internal revolt will have to bubble over–heated, no doubt, but rising outside pressure. That could happen if more member associations join England in declaring FIFA’s current game over. An even bigger assist could come in the form of deep-pocketed sponsors like Coca-Cola, Adidas and Emirates Airlines airing their displeasure with the current situation even more loudly than they began to Tuesday. That movement, perhaps, and joined by other FIFA-backing businesses, would go a long way towards putting  the pinch on FIFA where it’s always been most responsive: in its wallet.