Soccerstoriesbook's Blog


THE BLATTER MATTER: THE U.S. STARTED IT, AND THE U.S. CAN FINISH IT

Joseph Blatter resigned as president of FIFA, abruptly capping the most stunning, scandal-filled week in the 111-year history of the world’s soccer governing body.

Blatter had won an unprecedented fifth four-year term as chief during an election four days earlier in Zurich after lone challenger Jordanian Prince Ali bin al-Hussein dropped out following a first-ballot defeat.  Blatter won that round, 133-73, falling just seven votes short of outright re-election.

Only two days earlier, it was announced that a lengthy investigation by U.S. authorities into FIFA had resulted in a 47-count indictment alleging decades of corruption that included corruption, money-laundering, fraud and bribery totaling more than $150 million.  Federal racketeering charges were brought against 14, including nine current and former FIFA executives. Seven were arrested at a posh Zurich hotel ahead of Blatter’s election victory at the FIFA Congress.

In a separate probe, Swiss authorities raided FIFA headquarters and were examining seized documents and electronic data in which criminal mismanagement and money laundering are suspected in the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

A new FIFA presidential election is expected to he held as early as December.  [June 2]

Comment I:  This is only the beginning, of course.  An investigation that started four years ago with former CONCACAF Secretary General Chuck Blazer–an American known during his long career in soccer administration as “Mr. Ten Percent”–wearing a wire for the Feds now knows no bounds.  And predictably, it has inspired demands for reform from the highest places.  Like from Blatter, who told voters in his last speech before ballots were submitted May 29, “I have been made responsible for this storm.  That’s fine.  That’s fine.  I take that responsibility.  I take it.  I take it upon myself and I also want to accept this responsibility, get back on the path, to fix FIFA, together with you.”

Reform.  Wonderful.  But with Blatter and his cohorts–indicted and yet-to-be indicted–involved?  Ludicrous.

FIFA’s problems go back to those bucolic days about a half-century ago, before satellite television turned the World Cup from a major international sporting sensation into a global mania.  Things began to change in 1970, when the official ball for that year’s tournament in Mexico was dubbed by maker adidas “Telstar,” in recognition of the magical celestial orb that for the first time would bring that World Cup to nearly the entire planet.  (The ball’s now-iconic 20 white hexagonal panels and 12 black pentagons were designed to make it better for TV viewers to see on black and white TV.)  FIFA’s first non-European president, Joao Havelange, was elected four years later.  The autocratic but visionary Brazilian, whose presidential campaign took him to 86 nations, most of them from the Third World, recognized the enormous economic potential of soccer in general and the World Cup in particular.  By 1978, the 11th World Cup, in Argentina, was underwritten by Coca-Cola for a grand total of $8 million.  The die was cast.

Blatter came onboard in 1981 as Havelange’s lieutenant, the organization’s secretary general, and No. 2 learned well from No. 1.  With FIFA expanding its brand through the introduction of new world championships–under-20 and under-17 youth, followed by futsal, a Women’s World Cup, beach soccer, Olympic women’s, the Continental Cup, and age-specific female tournaments–the sponsorship and TV rights possibilities became limitless.

Limitless?  FIFA revenue was more than $5.7 billion over the last four years.  This for a non-profit organization.

Obviously, there’s no turning back to the days when filthy lucre didn’t permeate the sport and those in charge were gentlemen sportsmen like Jules Rimet of France (FIFA president 1921-54) and Sir Stanley Rous of England (FIFA president 1961-74).  So there has to be reform within FIFA, starting with greater transparency, term limits for officers and a reorganization of the executive committee, but that reform must be draconian because there are too many people still holding influential positions to whom a bribe of $40,000 is a fortune.

Of course, with a dose of courage, the sponsors, the source of all that money, could do it for FIFA.  Last year, Emirates Airline bowed out as a FIFA sponsor, as did Japanese electronics giant Sony, whose commitment to the world’s soccer governing body was $227 million over 10 years.  In January alone, Castrol, Continental Tires and Johnson & Johnson bade FIFA farewell.  But these walk-outs were hardly noticed.  If reform is slow, or tepid, it would be highly effective if major longtime sponsors like Coca-Cola and Budweiser and McDonald’s and Visa loudly stomped out of the room, making it a PR impossibility for, say, Pepsi to take Coke’s place at the table or Master Card to step in for Visa.  And it would bring things full circle:  authorities from America, international soccer’s traditional outlier, cracked open this can of worms, and American sponsors could be the ones to dump it out.

Comment II:  If there’s any good to come out of this mess, it’s this:  The American public now knows the name of world soccer’s governing body; they know the name of world soccer’s governing body’s president; they finally know that the acronym for world soccer’s governing body is pronounced “Fee-Fah,” not “F-eye-Fah.”  Everyone from your mom to your local news anchor now knows all that.  That’s progress.



AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM, PART XLV

“It’s official:  Sunday night’s telecast of Super Bowl XLV is the most-watched program in television history, in terms of viewership,” reports Milton Kent, sports media writer for The Associated Press.

“Fox, which aired Green Bay’s 31-25 win over Pittsburgh, breathlessly reported Monday that 111 million viewers tuned in to watch.  That tops the 106.5 million who tuned in to see the final episode of M*A*S*H in 1983.

“This marks the fourth straight year that a Super Bowl telecast has set a viewership record, marking the first time a major sporting event has hit record highs in four straight years.  More impressively, Super Bowl viewership from 2005 to Sunday night has increased by 25 million viewers.

“In ratings terms, the Super Bowl posted a 46.0 rating and 69 share, meaning 46 percent of the nation’s households were tuned in to the game, while 69 percent of all television sets that were on at the time were watching the contest.  That ties Sunday’s game for ninth on the list of highest-rated Super Bowls and 16th on the all-time list of most-watched shows, occupying those spaces with the same telecast, that of Super Bowl XXX aired by NBC in 1996 between the Steelers and Dallas.”  [February 7]

Comment:  “The most-watched program in television history . . . .”

We all know that the solar system revolves not around the sun nor the earth but the United States.  Nevertheless, Kent becomes the latest in a miles-long line of American media members who can’t bring themselves to qualify their remarks when it comes to the domestic versus the Universe at large.

The most-watched program in television history is, of course, the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and Holland.  The second most-watched program in television history was the 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France.  And so on.  Even the moon landing in 1969 (roughly 500 million) doesn’t come close.

The question is, how many people actually saw the Spaniards overcome the cynical antics of the Dutch to win a far-from-classic final in Johannesburg last summer?   A common guesstimate is two billion; FIFA puts the number at 700 million.

FIFA has every reason to inflate the figures.  After all, its sponsors–Budweiser, McDonald’s, MTN, Satyam–and marketing partners like adidas and Coca-Cola paid dearly for billions of eyeballs, not millions.  But maybe FIFA is wrong.

It has often been said that soccer is big abroad because the yokels have no choice when it comes to sports.  They have soccer and, um, track and field and, um, chess.  We, on the other hand, have three big sports to choose from (none of them soccer), plus another dozen or so sports (one of them soccer),  plus hamburgers, Disneyland and “American Idol.”   However, if one-third of a distracted America can rally around one of its three favorite sports once a year, then the rest of the world, sorely lacking in pleasant distractions, can surely muster up a third of itself to watch its favorite sport.  In a world of six billion-plus, that would be about two billion.