Sepp Blatter and upper echelon at Fifa well detached from people they should serve

Real world not part of pristine picture construed by football’s world governing body


‘Great opening ceremony. Feeling the party spirit of Brazil. Magnificent crowd.” The photo with Sepp Blatter’s tweet showed the interior of the Estadio Nacional in Brasilia. You could see thousands of empty red seats and a harsh disc of sunlight opposite that cast the rest of the stadium into darkness – the result of an early kick-off designed for TV viewers in Europe rather than people in the host city.

You couldn’t see the clouds of tear gas: they were drifting about outside the stadium, where police also used pepper spray and rubber bullets to prevent the party spirit from boiling over. Thirty-three members of the magnificent crowd ended up in hospital and 22 in police custody.

The stadium in Brasilia is named for Garrincha, whose nickname was “Alegria do Povo” – “Joy of the People”. Garrincha was just beginning his professional career in 1950, the last time Brazil hosted the World Cup. Almost 200,000 people squeezed into the Maracana stadium to see Brazil lose the deciding match to Uruguay.

Packing a stadium so far beyond capacity must have been incredibly dangerous, but that world-record attendance shows that international tournaments then really were a festival for the masses. In the age of Blatter, they have come to resemble something more like a G8 summit.

Cocoon of privilege
Blatter is insulated from the real football world he nominally governs, touring the five-star hotels of six continents, schmoozing with presidents and sleazing on pop stars. His protective cocoon of privilege is punctured only when he appears on the big screen at a match and everybody boos him.

He was booed at the World Cup final in Johannesburg as he presented the trophy to Iker Casillas. He was booed at the London Olympics as he handed out the medals after the women’s football final. On Saturday he was booed in Brasilia as the screen showed him standing next to President Dilma Rousseff.

Thinking quickly, Sepp acted as though all the booing were directed at Rousseff and gallantly appealed to the better angels of the crowd’s nature. “Where is the respect, the Fair Play, please?” he scolded via his microphone, before turning to the president with a look that seemed to say “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

It was true that at least some of the booing was for Rousseff. Continuing a recent global trend, the 2014 World Cup has become the focus of a bitter debate in the host country about resource allocation and social justice.

It’s easy to see why. International sporting events cost a lot of money, much of which is distributed by politicians to their favourite construction firms. They have a high media profile, so they are more conspicuous than other forms of government waste. And they deliver few tangible benefits. The question is whether the intangible benefits make everything else worthwhile.

In the case of the London Olympics and the 2006 World Cup, the consensus was that so many people had such a good time that the expense was justified. Of course, the UK and Germany are rich countries where the cost was not truly significant compared to the overall national budget.

It is harder to justify the expense on the basis of the supposed national feel-good factor in countries where millions of people have more pressing concerns, like hunger and pestilence.

That description applies to the last country to host the World Cup, South Africa. There was a time when the South Africans thought the World Cup would be huge for their economy.

In 2007 I visited a township south of Cape Town, where a guy called Elvis told me he wanted to set up a little restaurant selling street food outside the World Cup stadium at Green Point.

Purge the area
I doubt Elvis ever got within miles of that stadium. Fifa cordon them off and purge the area of all commercial activity not related to Fifa’s sponsors. The local economy is not their concern.

Three years ago this week I sat in a packed bar in Johannesburg and watched South Africa beat France in their final group game. For about half an hour it looked as though South Africa might win by enough goals to qualify for the next round. They didn’t, but for that half hour everybody in the place was going mad. I thought: this is what it’s all about.

A few days later I talked to Nkele, who was the maid in the guest house where I was staying. She had missed the match. She had missed nearly all of the matches, not because she wasn’t interested, but because she had no electricity at home. She hadn’t given the World Cup much thought. Mostly she thought about getting enough money to buy kerosene.

Fifa might say that it is not their role to solve poverty and correct social problems but it is their hypocrisy that sticks in the craw.

They preach inclusion and togetherness and Fair Play, but the only thing they really get excited about is trademark infringement.

When Blatter is booed in a stadium, it’s not just because people blame him for the commercialisation and corruption of football.

It’s because he is a kind of Marie Antoinette figure who in his own cheerfully complacent way represents everything that has gone wrong with the world – the capture of everything, even the game that used to be the joy of the people, by the one per cent.