Every so often efforts are made to justify the world’s obsession with football by casting it as an engine for social development. Football is touted as having the potential to break down barriers between Palestinians and Israelis (Sepp Blatter boasted along these lines last month), football will improve health, reign in street children, pacify gangs and so on. To that list one can now add: football may have been the venue for a revival of sorts for the Afro-Asian political alliance.

Many who usually watch only the highlights of African and World Cup finals became dedicated spectators of the off-pitch competition for the leadership of FIFA this May.  There is nothing like a good political drama.. American Attorney General Loretta Lynch explained the basis for US intervention: the crimes were  plotted and the proceeds laundered in the USA. In other words, universal jurisdiction. The very principle on which observers hoped for the apprehension of the war criminals responsible for using American tax-dollars to level Gaza in 2008/9 and again in the summer of 2014.. The chief perpetrator, Benjamin Netanyahu has since been allowed to address Congress and no attempts were made to arrest him. The USA does not tolerate bribery and racketeering, but it will cut you a lot of slack for the killing of thousands of people under occupation. It’s also clear that the US DoJ is much more serious when tackling criminality by football administrators (who have no powerful lobby in the US) than they are in bringing corrupt banks and their employees to book. No dawn raids on Wall St, still.

British prime minister David Cameron, his Foreign Secretary, and the chairman of the English Football Association, as well as Michel Platini, president of Europe’s regional confederation, UEFA, all urged Blatter to step down (though Platini’s home nation, France, voted to re-elect Blatter).

The response from the African, Asian, Caribbean and Central American Federations was to give their full support to Blatter. At the Confederation of African Football congress in April, wearing a theatrically indignant expression, President Issa Hayatou delivered a statement calculated to lower the morale of the European bloc: “[Blatter’s] action in favour of Africa speaks for him. To us, he is still the man of the moment.”

Those actions included promoting competitive football in Africa by funding the building of infrastructure including training centres, accommodation, pitches and offices, and widening the field of World Cup competitors to include more Asian and African representatives. Staging the World Cup on those Continents, particularly at the junior levels, established his credentials as ‘the man of the moment.’ Sepp Blatter’s profile is almost irredeemable in the eyes of many at this point, yet he can claim credit for being a colour-blind visionary.

The sheer weight of the deployment against Blatter’s regime is most intriguing and reminds me, in some ways, of the struggle in 1960–61 between the Afro-Asian Bloc and the European and American allies over the future of newly independent Congo. The Afro-Asian Bloc then, as now, looked to its own interests which had been arbitrarily subordinated to Western interests. Then as now the United States sought to occupy the moral high ground and took on the role of guardian of the Free World. Like Congo’s mineral wealth before it, international football is just another lucrative commercial interest. (Belgium exported minerals and other products worth US$450 million per year from Congo in the late 1950s.) The single-mindedness of the West in pursuing its interests is always fascinating. Once Congo was deemed to be vulnerable to Communist infiltration in 1960, the Department of State together with the CIA set about closing the loopholes by all means necessary, not balking at conspiring to depose the first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba. Their methods included bribing parliamentarians as has now been revealed by newly declassified memoranda between the CIA’s Congolese Station and Washington headquarters:

Launch extensive [less than 1 line not declassified] campaign ([less than 1 line not declassified] meetings) by assisting local political groups with the funds and guidance to take anti Commmie line and oppose Lumumba.

C. Expand political action operations seeking out and recruiting additional political leaders with view to influencing opposition activities…organize efforts to mount a no confidence vote in one or both houses of parliament. ….Immediate goal would be replace present govt with more moderate coalition headed by [Identity 1]. He appears be only opposition leader with hope of rallying opposition groups.” Document 8. Telegram From the Station in the Congo to the Central Intelligence Agency, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968 Volume XXIII, Congo, 1960–1968.

New to Western parliamentary/voting methods, Congolese parliamentarians were at first dormant. The CIA then identified specific individuals to be ‘developed’:

As [Government of Congo] leaders have done little to convince fence sitters to support the GOC despite our continuing efforts to influence these leaders[…] our Chief of Station has been attempting to stimulate action by preparing a listing of probable voting positions as well as a listing of parliamentarians who should be developed. This listing has been passed to GOC leaders who are now stirred into action. To support their efforts a total of [number not declassified] francs has been passed to influence key deputies.” Document 87. Paper Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968 Volume XXIII, Congo, 1960–1968.

Despite their best efforts, the vote of no confidence fell through. So Lumumba was bundled on to the back of a pick-up truck, trussed and shot dead instead. Then plans were put in place to tackle the troublesome alliance:

The key problem now is that we are losing the support of Afro-Asians….Since we can no longer build on the Congolese, we must have the support of the Afro-Asians. If we can not rely on the Afro-Asians we must either try to split the Afro-Asians or resort to the Belgians. Document 11, Memorandum of Conversation, January 26, 1961 FRUS, 1961–1963 Volume XX, Congo.

But what does all this have to do with FIFA? Surely in the context of the present crisis, neither Hayatou nor Blatter bear comparison with Lumumba.

FIFA too faces the threat of dismantling if it cannot be made compliant. UEFA has warned its members are prepared to consider re-segregating international football by pulling out of FIFA and the World Cup. This would have the effect of isolating non-UEFA members in much the same way as Guinea was held at arm’s length by France and America when that country declined to join the French West African Community after independence, an option that would have maintained the French President as Guinea’s Head of State.

After Blatter’s eventual capitulation it is becoming apparent the playing field is still tilted, just as it was in the 1960s, with talk of African countries having their voting-power reduced. This in the face of a tranche of scandals involving predominantly non-African football administrators giving and receiving bribes.

Judging by his age (68) Hayatou must have gone to school in the days when you did precisely what any European (teacher or fellow pupil) instructed you to do, resulting in more than one generation of Africans with what Houphouët-Boigny and later Stephen Biko called the African inferiority complex. Hayatou, from his vulnerable position as a suspect in FIFA’s racketeering was able to rise above this, stare them down and together with the Asian Federation, vote in the interests of African and Asian football – and his own interests. The same defiance that fuelled Nationalism in its heydey also powers the current crop of leaders of puppet states and institutions such as CAF and plays well to a gallery nostalgic for the idealism of the 50s and 60s.

To be fair, he has delivered, more than doubling the African slots in the World Cup  (from 2 to 5) and raising the number of African countries participating in the Cup of Nations from 8 to 16. It’s impossible to say that a cleaner FIFA would have delivered more.

Hayatou read the game accurately, as an administrator since 1973, (CAF president since 1988) including stints at a college and as a director in the Ministry of Sports of Cameroun, he knows what bad governance looks like and that FIFA has been badly governed. If allegations against him are true, he will have become to FIFA what Mobutu was to the USA, a fixer. Their dogged support of the sinking Blatter can only mean that  he and other Afro-Asian bloc football administrators are unembarrassed by FIFA’s venal sins, nor blind to Western ulterior motives. It is the game and, like Mobutu, Hayatou is very good at it. However, despite a spirited campaign, the Bloc lost the match for one reason: they failed to discern that operating skills on their own are insufficient; your jersey needs to at least appear to be clean as well.

Morally, the opposing sides are balanced. Following rolling revelations such as the sub-prime mortgages saga, LIBOR and forex rate fixing in the USA and Europe, it has become clear that bribery and racketeering are still as widespread and endemic in the staid, elite institutions there as elsewhere. Iraq was invaded on false pretexts; WMDs, Communism, corruption, any cover will do where elite Western interests are at stake. Compared to the capture and underdevelopment of entire countries such as 1960s Congo and today’s Palestine, football administration and Blatter’s inadequate management of it is hardly an issue. The bigger question is whether 60 years after the Bandung Conference national Afro-Asian leaders will learn from it and act in unison on matters affecting their interests and those of oppressed countries  everywhere, beginning with the Occupation of Palestine. Or are consensus and action  only possible when the issues revolve around football?

About the Author

Mary Serumaga is a Ugandan essayist, graduated in law from King's College, London, and attained an MSc in Intelligent Management Systems from the Southbank. Her work in civil service reform in East Africa lead to an interest in the nature of public service in Africa and the political influences under which it is delivered.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.

Kwame Nkrumah today

New documents looking at British and American involvement in overthrowing Kwame Nkrumah give us pause to reflect on his legacy, and its resonances today.