Qatar deaths enough for Uefa to take a moral stand against Fifa

Underpaid workers are dying in their droves in the name of football’s greatest tournament

Sepp Blatter: elected for the fifth time as president of Fifa despite the ongoing corruption scandal. Photo: Walter Bieri/EPA

Sepp Blatter: elected for the fifth time as president of Fifa despite the ongoing corruption scandal. Photo: Walter Bieri/EPA

 

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the parade of former Irish banking executives offering their sorry explanations before the Oireachtas for the past few weeks is it points to such a dreary little truth: it is not that these people were corrupt or delusional. They just weren’t very bright.

Can the same be said about the cast of characters who run Fifa? A thrill of anticipation greeted the midweek announcement that the FBI had launched the beginnings of a long-running investigation into the world football’s governing body.

The announcement was sufficiently leftfield to catch all delegates and media bound for Zurich for Friday’s conference by total surprise. It was hard to get one’s head around it: who knew that the FBI had even heard of soccer? But it was clear from watching US attorney Loretta Lynch’s explanation of what her office had discovered that they meant business. Fifa, she explained, is “entrusted with keeping soccer open and available to all”.

“Instead, they corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to secure their interests and to enrich themselves.”

To most of the world this might have been a dictionary definition of what Fifa does. But Ms Lynch’s breezy revelations of the dramatic arrests of high-ranking Fifa officials in Zurich punctured the notion that the apparatchiks who have made it to Fifa’s high table are untouchable. The only question is whether the arrests and the subsequent questioning will eventually lead to the fall of Sepp Blatter.

During the World Cup in South Africa, the Fifa headquarters were located next to a big shopping mall with bars and restaurants in Sandton in Johannesburg. Sleek, spotless, executive cars idled outside the lobby waiting to ferry Fifa people to wherever. The paths outside were velvet carpeted, the lobby off-limits. The look was incredibly expensive and slightly menacing.

Video diary

The shopping mall was built around a square from where ESPN held its broadcasts. Fans from whatever countries were playing that day would gather there to sing loudly and terribly. Steve Nash, all-time basketball legend, avid football supporter and general renaissance man, was in Jo’burg to watch some football and to contribute what was a highly entertaining video diary to CBS.

 

He was in the shopping mall in Sandton when none other than Sepp Blatter decided to take a rare walk among the people, breezing through in a haze of security and cologne. Nash made a living driving his skinny frame at the likes of Patrick Ewing and LeBron James. He wasn’t likely to be intimidated by Fifa’s president – particularly given that he had clearly enjoyed a skin full of beer.

As Blatter approached, the eight times All-Star,two-time MVP who would finish with an estimated $120 million in career earnings when he retired from the NBA at age 40, began a mock football chant in honour of Blatter. Nash is Canadian but he adopted his best English bovver-boy accent for his composition. “He’s Sepp! He's round! He bounces on the ground! Seppy Blatts! Seppy Blatts!”

Seppy Blatts pretended to ignore the chant and waved at the camera in his patrician way. Nash wore a tracksuit top and a pair of jeans. Blatter figured he was just a fan. The exchange took a few seconds and Nash considered it a lark. But in an odd way, it was more powerful than the well-documented and earnest attempts of countless reporters to ask Blatter what always amounts to the same question: why is Fifa so morally bereft?

Nash treated Blatter with a combination of humour and disdain. It must have been one of the very few instances since he ascended to the throne of Fifa that Blatter has had any one openly laughing at him.

The attorney general’s summary of the extent of the bribery under investigation – for instance $110 million exchanged in relation to next year’s Copa America – outlines a culture of corruption that runs deep.

Fifa delegates can literally make out like bandits. But given the sums of money involved in staging World Cups, the sums are drops in the ocean. In 2010, England’s FA brought their bid for the 2018 World Cup to Zurich in the naive belief that they had a fighting chance. They were gone after the first round, receiving two votes from a possible 22 – that included their own delegate.

The broadcast of Andrew Jennings's Panorama investigation into the now-disgraced Jack Warner just a few days before the vote irritated some. PM Cameron expressed his “frustration” at the timing of the programme. The Beeb’s flagship current affairs show has had its moments but it hardly scuppered England’s bid.

The FA discovered later that they were just innocents dealing in an unscrupulous world. At a parliamentary inquiry, Lord Treisman, who chaired England’s bid, said he had been constantly lobbied by Fifa delegates for all sorts of favours.

Sufficient wealth

Fifa’s man in Paraquay at least demonstrated imagination and limitless balls. He wanted “a knighthood” for his support.

 

England did not have sufficient wealth or corruption to swing the votes and hence the next two versions of the World Cup will be staged in Russia and Qatar.

So is Michel Platini serious when he suggests that Uefa member countries might withdraw from the next World Cup? The Frenchman’s words were strong: “Enough is enough. I am the first one to be disgusted by this.”

The International Trade Union’s report on Qatar, published in March 2014, estimated that some 4,000 workers will have died by the time the doves are released at the opening ceremony in 2022.

Reports on escalating Qatar building-industry deaths appear every so often but they have prompted little comment from any football figure of significance or little public outrage. It is easy to pretend this is not happening in the name of football’s greatest global tournament.

Already, there is something grotesque about the thought of a football carnival played on the very sites where so many underpaid workers met their deaths.

This is the real disgrace and the reason why any football body that claims to have a conscience should step away from Fifa and any competition it is running. Then, the sponsors will balk and whatever about the FBI, the Fifa top brass will not survive the heat of big business pressure.

Seppy Blatts hung onto power on Friday and will resume his gilded lifestyle.

Even if he is eventually questioned, the 79-year-old may shrug his shoulders and say the fault was with the system.

We have all heard that one before.

But Platini has given voice to the most potent protest left to football countries that purport to care about the morality of football. It is time to walk.

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