Corruption predates the World Cup, but it doesn’t have to live past it

June 12, 2014

An aerial shot shows the Arena Fonte Nova  stadium, one of the stadiums hosting the 2014 World Cup soccer matches, in Salvador

Crooked sports didn’t begin with FIFA or the World Cup. The truth is, the fix has been in since the beginning of time.

The first recorded example was Eupolos of Thessalia, who bribed three of his competitors in a boxing bout to take a dive during the Olympic Games of 388 BC. It must have been a big bribe, since one of those fudging the match was the formidable Phormion of Halikarnassos, the reigning champion.

Still, it seems no ancient example can stack up against the $30 billion-worth of corrupt dealings allegedly associated with the Winter Olympics in Russia’s Sochi resort earlier this year. Eupolos was doing it for personal, rather than national, glory. The stakes today have everything to do with national pride.

Half of the world’s men are likely to watch all or parts of the FIFA World Cup, which commence in Sao Paulo this week. The competition will garner $4 billion in total revenue for FIFA, the world football federation, most of that from television and marketing rights.

The world’s 20 richest football clubs made $7.4 billion in the 2012-13 season. At its upper reaches, the world’s most popular sport is awash with money. A lot of that is draining into the wrong hands.

Over the past two weeks, the Sunday Times of London has published (paywall) a series of revelations about the world’s football regulator, FIFA, alleging that Mohamed bin Hammam, a very rich Qatari, had “bought” the World Cup for Qatar in 2022, and had worked with Russia to secure its 2018 bid. Bin Hammam had been chairman of the Asian Football Confederation and on FIFA’s executive board. He was banned in 2012 due to “conflicts of interest.”

Insiders say that the largest conflict was with 78-year old FIFA head Sepp Blatter, the chairman for 16 years, who intends to stand for a fifth term and whom bin Hammam had intended to challenge.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter and Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff pose with the World Cup trophy during a ceremony at the Planalto Palace in BrasiliaThe UK press has indeed been all over FIFA and the Qatar bid, reporting that Blatter said the 2022 tournament must be played there even though temperatures reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius) in the summer. The organization’s own health committee has labeled it “dangerous.” Reports have included questions about African officials who were alleged to have accepted bribes. Blatter called the questions “racist” and said they “made me sad.”

Sadder still is the corruption in sports, because it’s become so common. In the last few decades, there have been corruption scandals around cricket in India and Pakistan, cycling in the Tour de France, baseball in the United States, horse racing in the UK, boxing in most places and, of course, soccer.

Tom Bower, the British writer whose 2003 expose Broken Dreams bears the subtitle, “vanity, greed and the souring of British football,” says that “football is unique – it is effectively lawless.”

Politicians, officials, judges and even journalists who have tried to clean up the more corrupt sports, have all broken their lances on the apparent invulnerability of players and on agents and officials who have grown the thickest of hides. As the mountains of money grow in the highest levels of sports leadership, is change possible?

Yes. The revelations in The Sunday Times and other media and book-length  investigations are increasing as the corruption does. They can have an effect. FIFA is now being investigated by its own ethics committee, led by New York lawyer Michael Garcia. Sponsors of the World Cup, including Hyundai, Coca-Cola, Adidas, Sony and Visa have said that the allegations against Qatar must be “investigated appropriately.” They failed say that, if proven, the people against whom the charges were made should be punished appropriately.

Politicians have to get bolder. David Mellor, a former Conservative minister for sport in Britain, said a fight against football corruption would “test the Archangel Gabriel.” But it’s a public duty to take on massive criminality which, in the end, only the law and its application can address.

For that, you need grass roots campaigns: a good example is the British “Kick Racism out of Football” campaign, founded over 20 years ago, which helped reduce the racist chanting, banana throwing and obscenities against non-white players. The campaign was slow to get started and mocked at first, but it acquired powerful supporters and eventually confined racist behavior to a hard, often violent, core.

The robbing of sports, even when done by much-loved sports figures, is as good as theft from the fans. As the world tunes into the World Cup, people might think of Eupolos of Thessalia and reflect how much worse things have gotten since the passing of classical Greece. Maybe then we can vow not to take it any more.

TOP PHOTO: An aerial shot shows the Arena Fonte Nova stadium, one of the stadiums hosting the 2014 World Cup soccer matches, in Salvador, in the state of Bahia, northern Brazil March 28, 2014. REUTERS/Valter Pontes

PHOTO: FIFA President Sepp Blatter and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff pose with the World Cup trophy during a ceremony at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia. REUTERS/Joedson Alves

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