Fifa boss understood very early that there’s a new world order in which westerners don’t matter much, writes Simon Kuper in the FT.
Blatter knows which of the soccer nations have money, and that is why he will be re-elected.
In the 19th century, it was the British, later Americans, then Russians and currently Gulf Arabs.
That’s why on Friday he will be re-elected to his fifth term as president of Fifa, the corrupt global football authority. Western countries rightly decry Blatter. However, we ought to recognise his genius. This 79-year-old understood very early that there’s a new world order in which westerners don’t matter much.
I only realised how deluded most of us westerners were on December 2 2010. That afternoon Fifa’s executive committee (Exco) chose Russia to host the 2018 World Cup and Qatar to stage the 2022 tournament. I had followed the bidding campaigns for years. I had had many off-the-record conversations with western bidders. A few had predicted Russia’s victory. Almost nobody foresaw Qatar’s.
Writing in the Financial Times before the vote, I chastised bookmakers William Hill for making Qatar runaway favourites. Hadn’t Fifa’s own evaluation report called Qatar’s extreme heat “a potential health risk for players, officials, the Fifa family and spectators”? I tipped Russia and the US to win. I was wrong. So were almost all other western observers. Theo van Seggelen, president of the international footballers’ trade union Fifpro, says: “For me — and I was reasonably close to the fire — the vote was a complete surprise.”
It turned out that Fifa cared only about naked power and money. In addition, more than a third of Exco’s 24 members were accused of corruption linked to the vote. Several resigned from football. Jérôme Valcke, Fifa’s secretary-general, wrote in a leaked memo that Qatar “bought” the World Cup. (He later said he’d been misinterpreted.) Last year The Sunday Times alleged that a Qatari, Mohamed bin Hammam, made payments totalling $5m to win support for Qatar’s bid.
Western countries, hopping mad to lose the World Cups, have cried “corruption!” But most non-western participants dismiss them (with some justification) as hypocritical, whining losers. Richard Attias, a French communications consultant who works with Qatar, told me: “Only a microcosm is interested in how World Cups are attributed — a very British microcosm.”
Fifa’s vote presciently recognised the geopolitical rise of Qatar and Russia. Fifteen days after the vote, a Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire, and north Africans rose in revolt. Qatar, “flush with the success of winning the rights to host the . . . World Cup and with its international recognition soaring as a result,” then helped spark the Arab spring, writes Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Baker Institute fellow for the Middle East. Qatar funded Islamists across north Africa, and helped unseat Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea. We live in a new world order.
It suits Blatter. Coming from a small country, he is skilled at accommodating big power brokers.
Moreover, he thinks like them: Blatter, too, likes legal immunity, motorcades on empty highways, and respectful underlings. The central American football officials who recently compared him with Jesus and Nelson Mandela presumably knew the comparisons were absurd. But the absurdity simply emphasised their loyalty.
Western countries are powerless to change Fifa. They could boycott the World Cup but, characteristically, they won’t make sacrifices for their principles.
Now some westerners are complaining about Blatter’s unfair advantages over any opponent in Friday’s vote. Many national football associations fear their supposedly secret ballots won’t stay secret.