Break down the Berlin Wall at FIFA

by Jonathan Todd

What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you use it? To whom are you accountable? How do we get rid of you?

Tony Benn wants these questions to be put to any powerful person. If Sepp Blatter retains any self-awareness whatsoever, which is doubtful, then he must cringe to have these questions applied to him.

He has great power as the president of football’s global governing body, FIFA. Following the “temporary exclusion” by FIFA’s ethics committee from football posts of Mohamed Bin Hammam, who was challenging Blatter for this post, he was yesterday re-elected, unopposed, for another four year term. The coronation of Blatter came from a body that has seen nine of its 24 executive committee members accused of corruption in recent months. While FIFA’s motto is “for the game, for the world”, the power bestowed in Blatter may not always further such high-minded ends. He seems accountable only to the executive committee, who exclusively appear able to remove the man in charge of a game loved with passion by billions.

Anthony Painter describes the tactics of Rafa Benitez as Soviet. This might better characterise the labyrinthine obscurity and obfuscation that sustains Blatter. Part of the beauty of football is in bringing diverse people together. The beautiful game is a unifying force. Now we are united in being locked out of Blatter’s politburo.

The question is whether or not we simply shrug our shoulders and return to the bread queues that ask us to fork out ever more for match tickets and the trappings of fandom. FIFA is no more legitimately a vanguard of the proletariat than is the governing party of North Korea. The fans need no such institution and, even if they did, that certainly isn’t what FIFA as it is presently constituted amounts to.

We should now be asking: why can’t the fans game be run by the fans for the fans?

This might seem hopelessly naive and idealistic. And, maybe, it is. But, as that great pragmatist Rahm Emanuel knows, a crisis should never be allowed to go to waste. FIFA is in crisis, which creates an opportunity to ask fundamental questions about its purpose.

Many hold up the transition undertaken by the IOC from the late 1990s onwards as a benchmark to which FIFA should now aspire. This would certainly bring gains of transparency, integrity and accountability. But would a modicum of democracy be too much to ask? And wouldn’t this do more than anything to ensure genuine transparency?

Members of “club england“, and equivalent bodies in the other 208 national footballing authorities recognised by FIFA, could vote to elect a delegate or two to an assembly that would appoint and scrutinise the executive body of FIFA. The executive would, of course, be composed of people seemingly capable of delivering upon such organisational challenges as are involved with FIFA world cups, but they would be directly answerable to the representatives of fans from all around the world. As a democratic institution to make the UN blush, it would bring fans together in the governance of football.

We should be realistic on FIFA and demand this supposed impossibility. Some – even Guardian writers – would contend that fans are uninterested in this democratisation. But, somehow, fans have been able to stop stuffing themselves with pies for long enough to organise a campaign for FIFA to be changed and football given to the people. Labour politicians often speak of “giving people power over the things that are important to them”. If football isn’t important to people, then I’m Leo Messi, and if this campaign doesn’t constitute a plea by fans to be given power over their game then my old man is Johan Cruyff.

Messi’s Barcelona did not just beat Manchester United on Saturday. They opened a vista onto a paradigm that is, sadly, terra nullius to English football. They sent not just Manchester United but the whole footballing culture from which they are hewn back to the tactics blackboard and training pitch as comprehensively as Hungary did when they demolished England on the same pitch in 1953. So absolutely does English football need to rethink itself that homegrown players truly capable of competing with Barcelona may be a generation away.

But what Barcelona achieved amounts only to the actualisation of Ron Greenwood’s maxim: simplicity as genius. Passing, moving, passing, moving. The basics that we – even in a country such as this where we are so quick to have kids graduate to large, muddy pitches – preach to young players. Only faster.

The best football will always be simple. It will be best run when a simple rule is applied. It’s the fans’ game and it should be run by them. This has been well understood at the fans co-operative that is FC Barcelona for a long time. The rest of football should break down the Berlin wall of FIFA and catch up.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist.

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