Are corrupt Africans really ruining FIFA?

We all know, thanks to the English FA chairman Greg Dyke and many other bigoted media commentators, that corruption at FIFA is caused by small African nations where greed is “cultural.”

Just yesterday the man who runs English football (and used to run the BBC) had this to say:

[The investigation into FIFA] is not colonialism at all. But there is no doubt that there are a set of values which you find in western Europe, and in America, and in Australia, that don’t apply everywhere. My experience in Africa is that when people go into politics in Africa, it’s incumbent upon you as part of that to look after your family. That’s just cultural, it’s a cultural difference.

Of course politicians in predominantly white countries that aren’t Africa have no interest at all in “looking after” their families. Everybody knows this, right?

Just look at the Clintons, for example. Virtually destitute at this point, are the Clintons. They got so poor due to their devotion to selfless and low-paid public service that they had to start relying on meagre multi-million dollar donations to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation to scrape a living.

Or the Bushes. One of the Bushes became president and the rest have been left to languish in obscurity. The Bush boys had to make do with a string of menial jobs — running oil companies, owning baseball teams, governing the states of Florida and Texas, being the President of America etc — because their father was a man of such unstinting probity that he simply wouldn’t countenance his kids getting any advantages over common folk.

Nope, it’s definitely just the Africans who “look after their family.”

And so it’s the Africans who’re to blame for FIFA’s troubles, particularly “small African nations” for whom giving and receiving bribes is just part of the culture. Just look at all the revelations in the past week or so. The pattern is clear enough. Let’s run through some of them.

The small African nation of Germany reportedly did a massive arms deal to secure Saudi Arabia’s vote for World Cup 2006. Gerhard Shröder, then Chancellor of Germany and a classic African despot, is said to have been behind the deal. The Guardian reports serious allegations: “that the German government lifted arms restrictions days before the vote in order to make the shipment and help swing Saudi Arabia’s vote to Germany.” What else can you expect from a tinpot African country like Germany, eh? I guess they were just looking after the family. It’s a cultural thing.

Another corrupt African official is Chuck Blazer, who for many years ran soccer in the little-known African nation of the United States of America and took all kinds of bribes and kickbacks. Like the classic African despot that he is, Blazer spent his ill-gotten gains on fripperies like a luxurious Manhattan apartment for his herd of cats. You see, it’s corruption in tiny, impoverished countries like this that needs to be stamped out. They’re ruining it for everyone and until the big, powerful countries have all the power in FIFA, nothing will change. As pollster Nate Silver recently suggested, it would be much better if only rich people had influence over FIFA.

Then of course, there’s the Irish African Republic, which in the manner of corrupt African nations everywhere, was paid off by a 5 million Euros bribe from FIFA to go away and shut up when they were upset about Thierry Henry’s handball.

And don’t forget the eastern-most of all African islands, Australia, which used taxpayers’ money to pay bribes in support of its bid to host the World Cup in 2022.

They said it was only African nations that were supporting Blatter. But of course we knew long ago that France, who voted to re-elect Sepp Blatter last week, had joined the African continent.

We at Africa is A Country would like to extend a warm welcome to Africa’s newest member states, including Germany, Australia, Ireland, France, and the United States. They do say Africa is growing!

This FIFA business has really redrawn the map of Africa. At this rate, FIFA will have to expand the number of places Africa is allocated at the World Cup quite substantially.

(None of this, by the way, is in any way a defense for the many corrupt and unaccountable officials right around the world who are doing football a disservice. Journalists everywhere need to be much more forceful in subjecting them to proper scrutiny, and the teeth of FIFA’s reform must be focused at the local level.)

I’ve been doing lots of media interviews this week on FIFA, and the question that keeps coming up is whether they should dump the inclusive and democratic “one-nation-one-vote” system, which they say gives too much power to African and Asian countries.

Next time an interviewer asks me, I’ll just say yes they should scrap it, because it gives too much power to corrupt nations like Germany and the United States.

Of course, that voting system needs to stay as the bedrock of an inclusive, accountable FIFA for the future. The connection between specific cultures/regions and the corruption revelations is totally spurious.

I tried to explain this in an article for The Guardian:

A staple of European and American reporting on Fifa in recent years has been the idea that its voting system (which grants equal representation to nations regardless of size, wealth and footballing pedigree) lies at the root of corrupt practices of the kind outlined by the US lawyer Michael Garcia in his report and most recently by the US Department of Justice.

The wonderful investigative reporter Andrew Jennings offered a classic example of this unhelpful conflation of separate issues when he told the BBC last week: “Frankly, if the next World Cup is Guinea-Bissau v Tanzania, that will say it all.” Neither country was remotely associated with the particulars of the recent indictments – these were chiefly concerned with dodgy dealings involving sports marketing firms in North and South America – but for Jennings the notion of small non-western nations having decent standing in the game is evidence enough of Fifa’s corruption […]

Arguing that Fifa’s one-member, one-vote system is what causes corrupt practices in football is like arguing that corruption scandals in British politics (for example, the “cash for access” sting that suckered [parliamentarians] Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw) are the result of each constituency in the country electing a single MP regardless of population or historical importance. There is no basis for it: it’s hogwash. Those who repeat this twaddle do so only to gloss with a thin veneer of respectability their view that football should be run in the interests of a small group of big-hitting nations and to hell with everybody else.

It’s also been noticeable how little the longer history of FIFA has been discussed. Again, this isn’t to defend local officials anywhere who might use this to cover their ass, but to point out that fears that football could be run by and for the West at everybody else’s expense are hardly without a basis in history. As Sean Jacobs and I wrote here (prior to Blatter’s re-election and resignation):

In 1974, the Brazilian Joao Havelange defeated [England’s pro-apartheid] Stanley Rous by marshaling an alliance of non-Western nations, many of them emerging from colonial rule, whose interests had hitherto received scant representation within FIFA. It is that same bloc that first elected Blatter in 1998, and which he will rely on if indeed FIFA presses ahead with this week’s scheduled election.

Blatter’s last serious challenger for the FIFA presidency was the Swede Lennart Johansson, then president of Europe’s governing body UEFA, who ran against him 17 years ago. Johansson was lionized in ESPN’s recent film (one gets the impression there’d be none of this corruption if he had become FIFA President), which failed to mention that one reason he lost that election was that he was perceived as a racist.

A Swedish newspaper published an interview with Johansson in 1996 in which he was quoted as saying: “When I got to South Africa the whole room was full of blackies and it’s dark when they sit down all together. What’s more it’s no fun when they’re angry. I thought if this lot get in a bad mood it won’t be so funny.”

It turns out that the good old days were actually pretty bad old days. Those who want Blatter out and FIFA reformed have to deal with that history and that reality, and accept that a global organization where Europe and America has disproportionate influence would also be corrupt.

For more, check my piece for Al Jazeera on what the future of FIFA should look like. There’s also an episode of The Stream where I talked about some of this stuff with Shaka Hislop and Jerome Champagne.

Finally, two excellent posts by the economist Branko Milanovic on his blog: The real stakes behind the FIFA scandal, and The age of open financial imperialism. Both highly recommended.

Protect the game, it belongs to everyone.

Elliot Ross

Elliot Ross is on the Editorial Board of Africa is a Country. He tweets at @africasacountry and @futbolsacountry

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