TORONTO – Sepp Blatter’s shock decision to step down as FIFA president won’t sweep all corruption out of soccer’s international governing body. By now, it’s a systemic issue; and one that cannot be fully and completely investigated by anybody associated with the now-disgraced body.
But could it put the World Cups in Russia and Qatar back on the table? The man who led England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup suggested on Tuesday that while Russia’s tournament in three years’ time was off the table – the preliminary draw is set for July 25 in St. Petersburg – Qatar’s 2022 event could be put in play again, depending on the final destinations of the multiple investigations that suddenly gained added momentum with Blatter’s announcement.
“We want the full facts behind the bidding published,” Simon Johnson, the chief operating officer of England’s failed 2018 bid, told the BBC less than an hour after Blatter, a 79-year-old Swiss who held the FIFA presidency since 1998, announced he was stepping down just four days after a contentious re-election. “And if there was any improper behaviour on the part of any bidders … then FIFA should have an open bidding process.
“(The 2022) bid is another matter. Moving it to winter … there’s going to be a lot of resistance now.”
Russia and Vladimir Putin will likely get off lucky; the same might not be said for the Qatari bid, which is very much a focus of the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into the past 24 years of FIFA business that last week led to nine international soccer officials being charged with money laundering and racketeering, and along with the Russian bid is the reason behind a probe being conducted by authorities in Switzerland, where FIFA is based. The Qatari bid has been a logistical and moral nightmare for the sport, with the desert heat causing a move to the winter instead of the summer, which brings it into direct conflict with European domestic leagues – and a seemingly endless series of reports of mistreatment of migrant workers at the various Qatari sites.
The Swiss attorney general’s office confirmed Tuesday that it was not investigating Blatter, but his decision so soon after published reports that his right-hand man, Jerome Valcke, was the source behind key payments in the bribery scandal, has created a sense that a much-talked about “smoking gun” might exist. And as Greg Dyke, chairman of the English F.A. and a bitter opponent of Blatter, remarked: “Why not step down last week? Clearly there’s a smoking gun of some sort. It has nothing to do with Mr. Blatter being honourable; he hasn’t been honourable in years.”
A word of warning: the English F.A. has had it out for Blatter for years, with Dyke and his predecessors at the forefront of criticism even moreso than Michel Platini, the head of UEFA, who on far too many occasions has tried to have it both ways. UEFA and Platini will try to lay claim to Blatter’s departure … but Platini and many of his lieutenants have in fact talked a better game than they have delivered.
So let’s see what this means for the Qatar World Cup. The geo-political divide that has fuelled the internal politics of FIFA for so many years still exists. Blatter is the man, after all, who brought the World Cup to Asia (Japan and South Korea co-hosted the 2002 event) and Africa (South Africa, 2010) as well as the Middle East, so his support among those confederations is hardly surprising, and as The Guardian’s Owen Gibson wrote this weekend there are elements of anti-Americanism and indeed vestiges of post-Colonial anger behind the support of Blatter by some of FIFA’s member nations. Whoever replaced Blatter must be comfortable with a foot in both camps and be able to speak to both realities while having a sensitivity for the issues of countries that will today feel aggrieved.
Blatter, after all, did win an election, and it’s not simply enough to sniff and say that the chasm existed only because of Blatter’s machinations.
FIFA’s next steps will be key, and it seems as if the easiest first step is to split FIFA presidency from any further “internal” investigation into corruption. Hold an election for Blatter’s replacement as soon as possible, before the old fool changes his mind again … but charge that person with the responsibility of overhauling governance and procedure and increasing transparency. And, please, look farther afield than Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan – who didn’t even have the support of Middle East associations in his failed bid to unseat Blatter – or Platini, whose role in past nominations of Blatter and his proximity to many of the main characters in this sordid tale makes him a fundamentally flawed candidate.
Let somebody else than the FIFA president become the point person for the corruption investigation – an international figure of impeccable reputation, preferably from outside the sport.
I mean, if you can spend $10 million bribing an official on a small island, surely to God you can open the bank to enhance your reputation. As Dyke asked the BBC: “Can we get into the leadership of FIFA people who aren’t suspect?” Not without going outside, Greg. Not without going outside.
In the meantime, if Qatar’s 2022 World Cup is put on the table, let’s dream a bit and muster support for a joint Canada-U.S. bid. Because despite the cheering heard from much of the world today, there are going to be a lot of countries spoiling to throw it back into UEFA’s face. It’s too good a crisis to let pass.