The world’s most popular sport has become a messy business. Never has this been clearer than in the aftermath of the sudden and stunning raid by US and Swiss officials at a Zurich hotel. Seven Fifa bigwigs have been indicted for bribery and corruption, which is, as the US attorney general said, “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted”.
Fifa, football’s governing body as well as the richest global sporting organisation, and its all-powerful boss, Sepp Blatter, are no strangers to corruption allegations. Most recently, despite persistent charges that the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar was influenced by millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks, Blatter was able to cling on to his position as president. But there are indications that Wednesday’s operation — impeccably timed for maximum drama, conducted as it was just two days before the Fifa congress where presidential elections are to be held — could be a game-changer.
That corruption is entrenched in Fifa comes as no surprise to anyone with even a passing interest in football. Yet, European authorities in particular have failed to take action, ostensibly reluctant to disrupt a sport that touches off such passion across the continent. It took the US, a country that has so far resisted the charms of football, to move against this profoundly dysfunctional organisation.
Under Blatter, who has transformed it into a personal fiefdom, wooing newer football-playing nations in Asia and Africa by giving them greater say and more tournaments, Fifa has repeatedly promised internal reform, and repeatedly come up short. But even as Blatter attempts to distance himself from the biggest scandal in the history of the organisation from which he has become indivisible, sponsors and national football associations, including the English FA, are ratcheting up the pressure for him to resign and not seek re-election. As the man under whose watch officials engaged in such unethical activities, Blatter should quit, even if it is proved that his own behaviour was unimpeachable.
For Fifa to regain the trust of the billions of football fans feeling betrayed by the caretakers of their beloved sport, the painful and long process of change must necessarily extend beyond the cosy clique that created this sordid mess in the first place and include representatives of fans and players. This hour of reckoning could be an opportunity to give the beautiful game the governing body it, and its fans, deserve.