Bernard Trafford: There we were thinking that football was just a game

Newcastle headteacher Bernard Trafford says FIFA should be dismantled, cleaned up and rebuilt

2015 Getty Images FIFA headquarters
FIFA headquarters

Here follows an apology. In the past I have denounced politicians and leaders who, when things go wrong, cling on to their position of power at all costs, and rarely if ever show any willingness to take the responsibility and step down.

Furthermore I may have suggested that there is no longer honour amongst parliamentarians and that they set a poor example.

I’ve extended that opprobrium to bank bosses who presided over catastrophe but still took the bonus and the fat pension, happy to let the victims of their misjudgements go hang. To read my columns in the past you’d think some of these people were the worst examples of humanity to crawl out from under a stone.

I was wrong. There is worse. There’s FIFA.

Incredibly, Sepp Blatter got himself re-elected as world football’s president for another term. I’m not ageist: nothing wrong with a 79-year-old staying at the helm of an international organisation if he’s up to it. Now he’s resigned, abruptly: for real, or doing a Farage? Time will tell.

Blatter ran an organisation whose reputation was destroyed not by any sudden and surprising revelation but through endemic and systemic corruption over many years. He steadfastly refused to accept that anything was amiss, even suppressing the findings of FIFA’s own investigation.

Last week, bullish in his re-election campaign, he appeared to acknowledge there had been wrongdoing. But FIFA’s a big organisation, he said: how could he know everything that’s going on?

You’ve got to hand it to him. He’s thick-skinned! He turned up to the election with someone else’s wife: she didn’t appear to be with him simply to take shorthand. (What was it that attracted you to the discredited 79-year-old billionaire, my dear?)

When the FBI arrested ten senior FIFA officials days before that vote, Blatter claimed a personal vendetta against him, orchestrated by UEFA, the European football federation.

Blatter himself may be interviewed by Swiss police. So is he corrupt? If he behaved criminally, the FBI will prove it.

But that’s not the central issue for me.

In my view his fault lies in glorying in that super-national status, relishing the way in which prime-ministers, presidents and royalty paid court to him, while wilfully and knowingly ignoring wrongdoing.

The re-election proved, moreover, that the mire of deception and corruption could not be laid at the door of one man, however powerful. In re-electing him, in spite of a small (one-third) protest vote, FIFA proved itself content to be revealed as bent, crooked and complacent: it told the world it didn’t give a damn, cocking a snook at both fans and the national associations.

With or without Blatter, FIFA should be dismantled, cleaned up and built anew.

Therein lies the difficulty. Times columnist Matt Ridley, that wise commentator rooted firmly in Northumberland, observed on Monday that international quangos such as FIFA, sprawling across the world and accountable to no one but themselves, are almost impossible to control or police.

They’re supremely effective at dividing and ruling opposition. Thus Blatter characterised UEFA as the villain: Russia’s Vladimir Putin, delighted to host the World Cup in 2018, denounced the FBI’s investigation as politically-motivated interference; Mother Russia played the victim card again.

Prince William and Gary Lineker alike, and perhaps surprisingly, spoke for the FA, the entire European Federation (UEFA) and, indeed, all of us when they expressed their disgust at FIFA’s behaviour. Blatter’s departure must not prevent pressure being brought on the organisation. If it continues to resist that pressure, we should be prepared to boycott the next World Cup and every successive event until it’s cleaned up.

It’s a big ask. Fans love the great tournament which brings together the globe’s finest teams. But if that Cup is tarnished, stinking of corruption, the joy has departed from it: we’re better off out of it.

How depressing. And there we were, thinking that football was just a game.

Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.

@bernardtrafford

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