Beautiful game, dirty business
Football is a great sport, but it could be so much better if it were run honestly
THE mesmerising wizardry of Lionel Messi and the muscular grace of Cristiano Ronaldo are joys to behold. But for deep-dyed internationalists like this newspaper, the game's true beauty lies in its long reach, from east to west and north to south. Football, more than any other sport, has thrived on globalisation. Nearly half of humanity will watch at least part of the World Cup, which kicks off in Brazil on June 12th.
So it is sad that the tournament begins under a cloud as big as the Maracan? stadium. Documents obtained by Britain's Sunday Times have allegedly revealed secret payments that helped Qatar win the hosting rights to the World Cup in 2022.If that competition was fixed, it has company. A report by FIFA, football's governing body, is said to have found that several exhibition matches were rigged ahead of the World Cup in 2010. And as usual, no one has been punished.
This only prompts other questions. Why on earth did anyone think holding the World Cup in the middle of the Arabian summer was a good idea? Why is football so far behind other sports like rugby, cricket and tennis in using technology to doublecheck refereeing decisions? And why is the world's greatest game led by such a group of mediocrities, notably Sepp Blatter, FIFA's boss since 1998? In any other organisation, the endless financial scandals would have led to his ouster years ago. But more than that, he seems hopelessly out of date; from sexist remarks about women to interrupting a minute's silence for Nelson Mandela after only 11 seconds, the 78-year-old is the sort of dinosaur that left corporate boardrooms in the 1970s. Nor is it exactly heartening that the attempts to stop Mr Blatter enjoying a fifth term are being led by Michel Platini, Europe's leading soccercrat, who was once a wonderful midfielder but played a woeful role in supporting the Qatar bid.
Our cheating rotten scoundrels are better than yours
Many football fans are indifferent to all this. What matters to them is the beautiful game, not the tired old suits who run it. And FIFA's moral turpitude is hardly unique. The International Olympic Committee, after all, faced a Qatar-like scandal over the awarding of the winter games in 2002 (though it has made a much bigger attempt to clean itself up). The boss of Formula One, Bernie Ecclestone, stands accused of bribery in Germany, while American basketball has just had to sack an owner for racist remarks. Cricket, the second-most-global sport, has had its own match-fixing scandals. American football could be overwhelmed by compensation claims for injuries.
But football fans are wrong to think there is no cost to all this. First, corruption and complacency at the top makes it harder to fight skulduggery on the pitch. Ever larger amounts of money are now being bet on each game—it may be $1 billion a match at the World Cup. Under external pressure to reform, FIFA has recently brought in some good people, including a respected ethics tsar, Mark Pieth. But who will listen to lectures about reform from an outfit whose public face is Mr Blatter?
Second, big-time corruption isn't victimless; nor does it end when a host country is chosen. For shady regimes—the type that bribe football officials—a major sporting event is also a chance to defraud state coffers, for example by awarding fat contracts to cronies. Tournaments that ought to be national celebrations risk becoming festivals of graft.
Finally, there is a great opportunity cost. Football is not as global as it might be (see article). The game has failed to conquer the world's three biggest countries: China, India and America. In the United States soccer, as they call it, is played but not watched. In China and India the opposite is true. The latter two will not be playing in Brazil (indeed, they have played in the World Cup finals just once between them).
In FIFA's defence, the big three's reticence owes much to their respective histories and cultures and the strength of existing sports, notably cricket in India. And football is slowly gaining ground: in the United States the first cohort of American parents to grow up with the game are now passing it on to their children. But that only underlines the madness of FIFA giving the cup to Qatar, not America. And the foul air from FIFA's headquarters in Switzerland will hardly reassure young fans in China who are heartily sick of the corruption and match-fixing in their domestic soccer leagues.
It would be good to get rid of Mr Blatter, but that would not solve FIFA's structural problem. Though legally incorporated as a Swiss non-profit organisation, FIFA has no master. Those who might hold it to account, such as national or regional football organisations, depend on its cash. High barriers to entry make it unlikely that a rival will emerge, so FIFA has a natural monopoly over international football. An entity like this should be regulated, but FIFA answers to no government.
All the same, more could be done. The Swiss should demand a clean-up or withdraw FIFA's favourable tax status. Sponsors should also weigh in on graft and on the need to push forward with new technology: an immediate video review of every penalty and goal awarded would be a start.
The hardest bit of the puzzle is the host-selection process. One option would be to stick the World Cup in one country and leave it there; but that nation's home team would have a big advantage, and tournaments benefit from moving between different time zones. An economically rational option would be to give this year's winner, and each successive champion, the option of either hosting the tournament in eight years' time or auctioning off that right to the highest bidder. That would favour football's powerhouses. But as most of them already have the stadiums, there would be less waste—and it would provide even more of an incentive to win.
Sadly, soccer fans are romantic nationalists, not logical economists—so our proposal stands less chance of winning than England does. One small step towards sanity would be formally to rotate the tournament, so it went, say, from Europe to Africa to Asia to the Americas, which would at least stop intercontinental corruption. But very little of this will happen without change at the top in Zurich.