The most striking aspect of yesterday’s arrests in Zurich of Fifa officials is that such action has taken so long. Allegations of corruption in the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals to Russia and Qatar have been falling on the organisation like a downpour of dirt since the announcement in 2010. The whiff of corruption had been wafting through Fifa halls for years.
The Russia/Qatar affair may not be the most alarming matter on the minds of delegates gathered today for the Fifa congress. Palestinian footballer Sameh Maraabah was arrested last Thursday by Israeli security agents at the Allenby Bridge, the only crossing point available to Palestinians between the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the outside world.
The team had been en route to Tunisia for a training camp in preparation for a game against Saudi Arabia on June 11th.
The incident came within 24 hours of talks between Fifa president Sepp Blatter and Israeli and Palestinian officials in Tel Aviv and Ramallah about a Palestinian bid to have Israel suspended from Fifa for persistent harassment of Palestinian players and allowing teams from illegal West Bank settlements to compete in the Israeli league.
On Thursday evening, the head of the Palestine FA (PFA), Jibril Rajoub, wrote to Blatter complaining: “The Israeli government’s promise [at the talks] to facilitate the movement of our players is having its first test . . . Player Sameh Maraabah has been detained for two hours now . . . The team has decided it will not leave without him.”
The team was able to resume its journey an hour later. The Israelis insisted that Maraabah had been delayed solely as a security risk and accused the PFA of “provocation”.
Blatter’s executive will now be in deeper dread than ever at the prospect of the Palestine conflict being reproduced within the organisation – particularly in its present fragile state.
But the fact that the issue has risen at all on the eve of the congress confirms that international football is no longer only a game but has become, in Orwell’s phrase, “mimic warfare”.
The enmeshment of the game in politics is nothing new, but the patterns of play are now almost identical. The first reaction of football followers to the 2010 announcement of the venues was of startled amusement. In particular, there can have been no footballing reason for the choice of a baking-hot Qatar with no football tradition.
An internal Fifa investigation found no corruption, but an FBI inquiry continued and culminated in the swoop on the opulent Baur au Lac hotel, favoured by Fifa top brass.
A fortnight ago, a documentary on the US sports channel ESPN claimed that Blatter had recently decided that “it would be unwise to set foot on American soil” (a claim later disputed by Fifa).
It is not suggested that Blatter himself was involved in wrongdoing.
In May last year, the
reported on the basis of millions of leaked emails, bank transfers and letters that Qatari lobbyist Mohamed Bin Hammam had paid out $5 million to Fifa voters to secure the finals. He quit football, although wrongdoing was denied.
High temperatures have been a factor in the death toll of workers building stadiums and other facilities in the oil-rich Gulf state. There are 1.4 million mainly Asian workers labouring on a £137 billion construction spree, 400,000 of them from Nepal. In December last, the Guardian reported that Nepalese workers were dying at a rate of one every two days.
Many Nepalese have been refused permission to go home to comfort families bereaved and living in ruins from the recent earthquakes. Their passports are held by their employers. Their status is akin to slavery, the right to leave the job being the key difference between the worker and the slave. Per capita, Qatar is the richest country in the world. Its citizens don’t do manual labour. Of a 1.8 million population, only 278,000 are citizens.
Until now, the ruling al Thani family can have been confident that, by means of football, their fiefdom was set to take its place among the respected nations of the world.
The scandals of Fifa are by no means impossible to alleviate. The great Portugal midfielder Luis Figo last year launched a bid for the presidency, saying: “Corruption, labour issues and other human rights are matters with which we should have zero tolerance.” He promised to work towards these aspirations if elected.
Seven days ago, he abandoned the effort to oust Blatter, conceding that he had no chance of success, leaving only Jordanian prince Ali Bin al-Hussein to make a challenge. Our own FAI had already decided to join England and Scotland in supporting al Hussein.
FAI chief executive John Delaney can take some sort of bleak satisfaction from yesterday morning’s dramatic events.
He had caused footballing heads worldwide suddenly to jerk when he turned down Blatter’s offer of a “Fifa Fair Play Award” following the Republic’s defeat in the Thierry Henry handball world cup eliminator in 2009. Blatter, he said then, was “an embarrassment to himself and to Fifa”.
It is still likely Blatter will win re-election. On a one-country-one-vote system, the smaller associations among the 209 affiliates, some showered with subsidies throughout Blatter’s 17-year stint at the top, will probably see him through.
Short of a revolution in the way the organisation is governed and a reckoning with the Blatter regime, it is certain Fifa won’t deliver justice to Palestinian footballers or for the workers upon whose sweated labour the success of the entire World Cup operation depends.