Rob Cox: If FIFA were a country it would be Russia

By Rob Cox
June 2, 2015

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

It is hard for most people to fathom how Sepp Blatter last week clinched a fifth four-year term as the head of FIFA, the international soccer federation. Just days after the U.S. Department of Justice sent the sport’s fans, sponsors and players into a tizzy by indicting some of the 79-year-old’s senior associates for racketeering, the Swiss native won re-election with 133 of the organizing body’s 209 votes.

To at least one world leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Blatter’s resiliency can be of no surprise. Just as in the football federation, Russia’s governance structure relies on an elaborate system of patronage doled out by an autocratic boss at the center. Power in the Russian federation – much as in Blatter’s fiefdom – derives from the fragmentation of its constituents and the fact that most of them have done incredibly well over the years.

The two men even speak the same defiant lingo. Both castigated the long judicial arm of Uncle Sam, rather than any culture of corruption within FIFA, for the scandal. “No one is going to tell me that it was a simple coincidence, this American attack two days before the elections,” said Blatter. Putin called it “yet another blatant attempt to extend [U.S.] jurisdiction to other states.”

Upon accepting rival Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan’s concession, Blatter said the organization he has led since 1998 needs merely to evolve in response to the allegations from American authorities: “We don’t need revolutions.” Putin – whose nation will host the 2018 World Cup – used similar language following calls for so-called “color revolutions” that followed the March assassination of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov on the Kremlin’s front stoop.

The similarities between the two men, and the power structures they head, are uncanny. “If FIFA were a country, instead of merely a corrupt international sporting organization, it would look a lot like Russia,” wrote Ryu Spaeth in The Week. But set aside the scope of the corruption and bribery charges, which in FIFA’s case the U.S. Department of Justice calculates at some $150 million. Focus, instead, on the way both men assert control and curry favor.

Start with FIFA. In 1998, the year that France won the World Cup on home turf, FIFA’s revenue surged to 389 million Swiss francs, or some $280 million. In 2014, when Germany lifted the trophy in Rio de Janeiro, revenue reached $2.1 billion. Even Blatter’s most ardent detractors would have to admit that is an impressive achievement.

It’s not just Blatter’s success pumping up FIFA’s revenue that defines his artistry as leader. Consider how he sprinkles the organization’s largess to those smaller member states whose votes weigh equally against gigantic football nations like Italy, England or Brazil.

Blatter’s key initiative upon taking charge was the so-called “Goal Programme.” As described in FIFA’s 2003 annual report, “Goal is based on the vision of a ‘House of Football’ – not a single house, but a house in every country and a house for each of our… member associations. A house that is open to all those who are involved in football and all supporters of the game.”

In that same report, FIFA outlined the goodies. They included artificial turf pitches in Seychelles; association headquarters in Kampala, Uganda; association headquarters and a technical center in Bahrain; a national football academy with two pitches in Fiji; renovation of the national stadium in Bangui, Central African Republic; a multi-functional center in Mandalay, Myanmar with two training pitches and one pitch for competitive football; and many more.

These deals lubricate the gears of Blatter’s machine in much the way that Putin’s blessings of the oligarchs and regional officials who have supported him have arguably kept him atop Russia since not long after Blatter took charge of FIFA. Many of these acts of favoritism were detailed by Reuters in a special report, “Comrade Capitalism,” last year.

Among them was a ban on agricultural imports that happened to benefit pal Gennady Timchenko, who had applied to buy one of Russia’s largest apple producers, and healthcare policies that allowed two wealthy associates of the president to sell $195 million of medical equipment to the state and deposit $84 million of the proceeds into Swiss bank accounts.

Yet Putin boasts an approval rating of 86 percent – and for the same reason that Blatter received the support of 64 percent of his FIFA constituents. The truth is that the 62-year-old has had an extraordinary run as Russia’s boss. In 1999, the year he first became prime minister, gross domestic product was about $196 billion in nominal terms. In 2013 it topped $2 trillion. As a consequence, the share of Russia’s population living at or below the poverty line has shrunk to just 10 percent, from about 40 percent at the turn of the century, according to World Bank figures.

The powers of Blatter and Putin may have already peaked. The World Bank estimates that Russian poverty will begin to increase this year due to declining disposable incomes and consumption. And U.S. authorities say they’re not done with FIFA. Yet the two have shown an impressive ability to cling to power. They will be hard to remove.

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