Wednesday, 3 June 2015

FIFA boss steps down so that nothing needs to change

How ironic...

It’s safe to say Fifa hasn’t had a very good month. Will it see better? Possibly. And football as an institution will undoubtedly keep going, which should ring alarm bells – even though it won’t.

A lot of money flows into world football. New Zealand Football spent $3.8 million in 2014 on national teams and football events of various age groups. To put that into perspective, a single English Premier League team (Manchester City) spent £619 million ($1.322 billion) in the last decade.

So it’s really no surprise when we discover corruption, graft and bribery are as tied up with the world’s most popular sport as shoelaces and exaggerated injuries. It didn't have to be this way, although it’s difficult to find any industry with so much money that isn’t inevitably susceptible to a taste of human greed.

Most recently, a Swiss national by the name of Sepp Blatter, resigned after presumably feeling the pressure from a suspiciously intense investigation led by the FBI. Mr Blatter spent 16 years reigning at the top of world football.

“I have been reflecting deeply about my presidency and about the 40 years in which my life has been inextricably bound to Fifa and the great sport of football. I cherish Fifa more than anything and I want to do only what is best for Fifa and for football.

“What counts most to me is the institution,” Mr Blatter said with a hilariously straight face.

Now that he's gone, what will happen to football? Well, another person more interested in money than the integrity of football will likely take Mr Blatter’s place. The sport will go on, and people will enjoy watching and playing it all over the world. Arguably, whatever bribery was occurring for years at the top echelons barely affected the myriad competitions anyway, so there’s really nothing to worry about.

Then again, tell that to the 4000 workers predicted to die in Qatar building the 2022 World Cup stadiums. Accurate numbers are hard to come by, for understandable reasons, but reports from independent sources suggest thousands of workers are paid as little as $50 a week to build the $260 billion sporting infrastructure.

And in Brazil, where the most recent competition was held, the 12 stadiums which cost Rio de Janeiro a package worth $3.6 billion of money it could barely afford, now lie dilapidated. Almost none of the stadiums have been used for anything after the last crowds filed out in 2014. The government just hopes it can use the stadiums for the upcoming Olympic Games, although it probably can't.

Before Brazil's hosting, the same competition was held in South Africa. Each of its new stadiums set the South African government back R70 million ($8 million) a year simply for maintenance. Again, there’s no real reason to use those stadiums for anything else in the future. And South Africa spent $5 billion constructing the necessary infrastructure, again, with money it could barely afford.

A recent study conducted by the University of Oxford found the “legacy” of running the Football World Cup is often one of financial pain and economic hardship for the host country. Dr Eamon Molloy, lead researcher for Oxford’s Said Business School, says the competition always end in the same way.

“Failure to improve management of infrastructure around major sporting events means that the world's sporting entertainment will be paid for by those least able to afford it,” the research bleakly concludes.

Don't get me wrong, sport is a great pastime, especially when it’s played (not so much when it’s watched). And most people won’t have a problem with the idea of making money from something other people love. But when a country half-cripples itself for the tenuous prestige of hosting a football competition, maybe the real problem isn’t Sepp Blatter after all.

The fundamental reason Fifa is awash with money is because the sport is immensely popular. Companies ranging from Adidas, McDonalds, Coca Cola, Emirates, Sony, Visa, Castrol and Itau all find it commercially useful to spend billions on advertising their different brands on shirts, billboards, balls and pitches. They must earn magnitudes more money from this venture, otherwise the investments wouldn’t make sense.

On an individual fan level – speaking here strictly as an observer – it feels like the magic of football isn’t so much that someone’s team lost the last match but that their team could win everything in the future. Their team might eventually be the best team in the world, even if the individual fan probably won’t be world-best at anything.

Watching football is aspirational, just like Adidas advertisements. Ads create a gap between the viewer and the product, so does sport. Both sell the viewers a deep hope that maybe they too can be world-beaters/beautiful/happy if they pay enough money or believe strongly. And since many football viewers' identities are tightly wrapped in whichever team they support, this gap is never bridged. Hence the constant desire for more sports.

All of which leads me to predict nothing will change following Mr Blatter’s resignation, because the Fifa boss doesn’t actually matter here. Sure, the man needs to read some moral philosophy and maybe meditate for a few hours each week. But most football fans probably had two screens running today, one watching his resignation while the other blared out the latest match.

It might feel good to knock down someone on Mr Blatter’s level. Yet an institution of this size, with an ocean of funds, relied on by millions of people for income and considered by most fans to be a deep part of their individual psyche probably won’t bat an eye at revelations of corruption.

It’s possible to internalise anything, except blame. And like it or not, while Sepp Blatter might be a bad guy, he’s only the scapegoat. His carcass will be thrown to the wolves so football fans the world over can sleep at night feeling that things are being fixed. This is nothing but a time-worn tactic of the defence against change – because people hate change.

Yet it’s worth considering: If football as a sport relies on grassroots participants and viewership in the hundreds of millions watching thousands of games each year – the net value of which is reinforcement of a football fan's personal identity – then maybe the problem isn’t Sepp Blatter and the Fifa management team.

Maybe the problem is you.

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