Instead, Blatter’s lawyer announced Tuesday that the president would miss the final Sunday “for personal reasons.” That means the post-Blatter era in international soccer will start this weekend; it’ll be the first World Cup final without him presiding in 20 years.
And while many fans of the women’s game won’t be sorry to see Blatter gone if it means the end of his remarks that the likes of Carli Lloyd and company should be wearing tighter clothing, or his insistence on artificial playing surfaces in Canada that men would never be forced to put up with, it’s worth pausing for a moment to wonder if the sport, worldwide, really will be better off without him.
After all, the future of soccer is now up for debate in a way not seen since 1974, when the iron grip of Europe over FIFA was broken. Up until then, FIFA had been run as a club for big powers like England, France and Germany. The FIFA president between 1961 and 1974 was a patrician Englishman, Stanley Rous, a supporter of apartheid who fought to protect South Africa’s membership in FIFA when every other African and Asian nation wanted it expelled. Africa only got a guaranteed spot at the men’s World Cup in 1970, after boycotting in 1966. The coalition that eventually defeated Rous was marshaled by the Brazilian João Havelange, and subsequently by Sepp Blatter.
International soccer hasn’t always been inclusive, and there is no guarantee it will remain so if the rich countries who’ve been loudest about Blatter’s sins regain control. It’s worth remembering that women’s soccer was banned by the English association for half a century until 1971. Times have changed, but perhaps not as much as we’d like to think. Soccer’s pluralism is vulnerable to unchecked commercialism — just ask the players and supporters of the Brazilian club Santos’s women’s team. In 2010, they won the Copa Libertadores and were crowned the best women’s club in all South America. Just two years later, the team no longer existed. It was closed down in a cost-cutting exercise in order to pay for superstar Neymar’s hefty salary on the Santos men’s team. Neymar has since transferred to Barcelona, under murky financial circumstances; the Santos women’s team has not been revived.
That inclusiveness is what makes the game today a culturally rich and remarkable thing, and those who grouse that only elite soccer is worth watching are quite wrong. In an ever more polarized world of haves and have-nots, soccer is one of the few things the have-nots still possess.
For example, there has been much grumbling that the Women’s World Cup expanded to 24 teams for this year’s tournament. Germany defeated the Ivory Coast 10-0 in the competition’s first week, and better not to have a place for teams like Ivory Coast, they said. But in their very next game, Ivory Coast won an enthralling 3-2 tussle against another “small” soccer nation, Thailand, in a match that will be among the peaks of the tournament in terms of sheer human drama and enjoyment.
Soccer in its glorious variety needs to be cherished and sustained. The new arrangement for the government of the game after Blatter must ensure that the commercial boom at the elite level is leveraged to benefit people right around the world who love the sport.
Otherwise, the cures for the alleged corruption Blatter presided over risk also ditching the all-too-easily-overlooked upside to the global boom in soccer that the whole mess helped facilitate: It’s made a fun game even more so. A few years ago, I was sitting in the bleachers at Estádio do Zimpeto in Maputo, Mozambique, watching the local favorites, the Mambas, trying to get the better of neighboring Tanzania in a tense Africa Cup of Nations qualifier. (The tournament is a venerable competition which was first staged in 1957, three years prior to its European equivalent.)
I got chatting to the guy next to me, a postman from New Zealand. He’d just gotten off a lengthy bus ride to Maputo, having attended Zimbabwe’s match in Harare and a club match in Johannesburg that same week. This, he explained, was a typical holiday for him. When he wasn’t doing his rounds delivering letters and packages around suburban Christchurch, he liked nothing better than to fly halfway around the world to catch international matches in Africa. He scheduled his vacations meticulously in order to see as many matches as possible, and had attended games in a staggering number of countries.
As dusk fell, the Mambas edged a nervy penalty shootout 7-6, and the whole place erupted with joy. We embraced some friendly folk in the row in front, and they offered to give us a ride back downtown in their minibus, stacked full of coolers of beer. We took a winding route through the backstreets, honking jubilantly at people celebrating their team’s narrow victory. In my terrible Scottish-accented Portuguese, I tried to analyze key moments in the game for the benefit of the rest of the bus, to much hilarity.
From the window seat of that minibus next to the intrepid postman from New Zealand, soccer seemed like a magical thing, capable of fostering internationalism like nothing else could. It’s easy to forget that the game is now among the world’s primary cultural practices, and that there’s so much more to it than the UEFA Champions League or the World Cup.
Where national budgets are tiny, paying for what you need for international soccer — like player accommodation, flights and training facilities — is a constant struggle. To put it bluntly, without financial support from FIFA, many national teams from the world’s poorest countries would find it extremely difficult to play.
A few days later, I spoke with Tico-Tico, the greatest player to have played for Mozambique (Eusebio, of course, was the greatest Mozambican player of all time, but he played for Portugal when Mozambique was still a colony). I told him I’d been to the game against Tanzania and how exciting it was that Mozambique might qualify for the continent’s premier competition once again (it turned out they didn’t, as Morocco knocked them out in the next round). To my surprise, Tico-Tico told me he had mixed feelings.
We were standing in a scrubby field in a rural area south of Maputo, where he had started an academy to train young players. After a high-profile playing career in South Africa, he returned to Mozambique to help nurture the next generation of players.
Tico-Tico was ambivalent about the national team’s recent victory because of his deep concerns about the Federação Moçambicana de Futebol. In his view, local officials had no long-term vision for helping the game flourish in a soccer-mad nation. He was running his own youth project independently, on a shoestring budget. Tico-Tico was sure that if the national team did well, those same administrators would certainly claim the credit despite having done a lousy job.
Several others who knew the ins and outs of Mozambican soccer told me a similar story. They were thoroughly sick of cronyism at their national soccer federation, and its failure to serve players and fans as well as it should. But there was no way of holding these officials accountable.
Between the bus ride and that chat with Tico-Tico, the central paradox of international soccer couldn’t have been made any clearer. On one hand, a sport which continues to enrich the lives of all kinds of people in every corner of the globe; on the other, a shocking disconnect between the game’s administrators and its players, coaches and fans.
That was also what the FBI and the Justice Department discovered in their investigation: Administrators in CONCACAF, like Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer, allegedly cut countless shady deals out of personal greed, but they were accountable to nobody outside a small circle of other officials.
Soccer administrators around the world are notoriously impervious to popular pressure, and any national government which seeks to clean up its federation is swiftly threatened with FIFA’s ultimate sanction for what it characterizes as political meddling. For example, in 2010, when Nigeria’s president tried to dissolve the country’s notoriously corrupt soccer association, FIFA told him a replacement body would not be recognized and the country would be kicked out of international soccer.
Well-organized grass-roots groups like the Mathare Youth Sports Association in Kenya have had great success in using soccer for the public good, but it takes a Herculean effort to loosen the stranglehold of officials at the institutionally incompetent Kenya Football Federation over soccer in the country.
Either the United States, Japan or England will be crowned world champions this weekend, but that doesn’t mean to say that soccer’s future should be skewed in favor of countries with the biggest economies. There is no good reason to get rid of FIFA’s one-nation-one-vote system, by which smaller nations are guaranteed decent standing in the game. Without it, the game in places far from the center of elite soccer will be left to shrivel away, and the promise of the game as something shared by the whole world will be betrayed.
FIFA should instead honor the devotion of ordinary fans, and their ability to organize, by putting reforms in place that radically expand the number of empowered stakeholders in the running of their national game. This weekend’s World Cup final offers a vision of soccer without Blatter leering over it. We don’t know who will replace him, and many will doubtless place their hopes in whichever would-be successor seems most credible by the election in December. But whoever takes over will have to retain the pluralism that Blatter helped bring to world soccer, and build actual democratization into it. Or the game could wind up going backwards in the name of progress.