Power and Passion Put FIFA Above the Law

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jul 12, 2010 (IPS) – The FIFA Football World Cup is presented — and felt emotionally by millions — as a contest amongst countries in which national honour is at stake. But it is also a private business, controlled by a small group of people who exploit patriotism and foment rivalries in marketing the “product.”

The Spanish national team was the victor in the final match Sunday of this year’s World Cup, hosted by South Africa, defeating Netherlands 1-0. As Spain basks in the glow of its first-ever World Cup title, the rest of the world’s football fans are looking ahead to 2014, wondering if their national teams will make it to the next edition of the international tournament, hosted by Brazil.

Stadium construction and other preparations are already under way in the Brazilian host cities, and FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) has already taken some very important — and often lucrative — decisions.

A warning from Arlei Damo, professor at the Brazilian Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), identifies “mafia-like” characteristics in FIFA, the sole governing body which “monopolises” this professional sport in the world, overseeing groups of national and regional football federations.

It is a “closed body that is accountable to no-one,” and will not reveal how much it profits from the World Cup tournament, held every four years, or where those profits go, Damo told IPS. FIFA dictates the rules, has its own form of justice and does not put up with members that turn to the national courts.

With a degree in physical education and a doctorate in social anthropology, Damo has published three books about football, and is one of a growing number of academic researchers studying the broader scope of this globalised sport.

Football’s amazing motivational power does not lie in the sport itself, “a game without meaning, with a fragmented narrative,” as Damo described it, but lies in the fact that it is a powerful “symbolic good” and relies on individuals feeling part of something larger, whether nationalism or “clubism.”

The crowds that faithfully head to the stadiums or that get excited about the World Cup don’t do it for the sport, but to support their club or national team, he said. This “captured patriotism” means that people who don’t necessarily understand or appreciate the game will nevertheless turn into fervent fans.

The rivalries — domestic or international — are a key element. Support for a football club in Brazil is determined by a “male blood relative” in 80 percent of the cases, and is definitive for the family. Infidelity is punished through social stigma.

Brazil’s national team, like those of the rest of the world, is not a team belonging to the country itself, but to the Brazilian Confederation of Football, a private entity that does not answer to the government or the population, with decisions taken by a handful of powerful clubs, said Damo.

FIFA likewise exploits the ambiguity and the belief that it is a sort of multilateral, inter-governmental institution. It is proud to have more members than the United Nations (208 compared to the UN’s 192). It does not allow foreigners to play on a national team, only native born or naturalised citizens, in order to maintain the power of the national identity associated with the team, said Damo.

That institutional context, without governmental or societal control, favours the kind of corruption denounced by journalists like Scotland’s Andrew Jennings.

It’s no accident that FIFA headquarters are in Switzerland, where flexible laws allowed a bribery case to go unpunished. Jennings had reported the case of bonuses offered by International Sport and Leisure as it negotiated FIFA television and advertising rights.

In the organisations that govern football around the world, the leaders tend to remain in their posts for long periods, another fact that lends itself to corruption. The Brazilian João Havelange was at the helm of FIFA from 1974 to 1998, who previously had headed the Brazilian Confederation for 16 years.

But the “inexplicable” success of football around the globe, making it the favourite sport in most of the countries where it is played, has put it above the problems of corruption and impunity, says Simoni Lahud, an anthropologist at the Fluminense Federal University, in Niteroi, near Rio de Janeiro.

The global expansion of football, a triumph that legitimises FIFA’s power, generated a widespread “passion” that overshadows the repercussions of corruption or interference of football leadership in national decisions, such as the construction of stadiums in preparing to host the World Cup, she said.

In a “transnational world,” sports serve as “one of the few places for national representation,” especially in Brazil, where the nation has few ways to express itself, so it “places all its chips on football,” said Lahud.

Nationalism in Argentina, in contrast, is expressed in many areas, like politics and territorial conflicts, and as a result the passion for club football is as strong as it is for the national team, she added.

The differences were evident in the two countries’ reactions when their teams lost during the World Cup in South Africa, said the anthropologist. While the Argentines received their national team with celebrations after losing 4-0 to Germany, the Brazilians may as well have thrown stones at their players, beaten in the quarterfinals by Netherlands, 2-1.

Curiously, that nationalism linked to football in Brazil “emerged from a defeat,” when it lost the 1950 World Cup final match to Uruguay, 2-1, at Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Lahud noted.

The national trauma, following the victory of the tiny neighbouring country that overcame widely favoured Brazil, scarred the South American giant — and could be why football triumph has turned into a national obsession.

Regardless, football has become an important aspect of life for millions, if not billions, of people around the globe, and is now such a gigantic business that its governance has attracted more and more scrutiny — and not just from academics and journalists.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, for example, has suggested limiting the term of the president of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) to eight years, as the Brazilian labour unions under his direction did in the 1970s.

Ricardo Teixeira, former son-in-law of Havelange, has led the CBF for the past 21 years. And Joseph Blatter, of Switzerland, has been in command at FIFA since 1998

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