Why our love of football makes its betrayal by Fifa so hurtful

In his latest book, The Fall of the House of Fifa, David Conn shows that not everything is black and white at the top of world football.

Blatter, Platini And Infantino - Athens Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini and Gianni Infantino together in 2007. Source: Szwarc Henri/PA Images

“I HAVE SPREAD my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”

It is quite fitting that David Conn’s new book, The Fall of the House of Fifa, opens with the famous WB Yeats line because the 300 pages that follow take us on a journey from the childhood innocence of believing you could be as good as Cruyff or Beckenbauer, to seeing the latter under criminal investigation in both Switzerland and Germany for his role in his country’s 2006 World Cup bid.

Like a lot of the characters you’ll come across in The Guardian journalist’s latest book, Beckenbauer denies any wrongdoing.

It’s a book that informs as much as it enrages, deliberately so says Conn as he was keen to root all that is wrong with football in what makes it the beautiful game in the first place.

“I didn’t want to write a book that was just ‘here are the guilty men, here are the documents, they’re the mafia,’” Conn told The42 this week.

“I’ve really tried to avoid that term. What I wanted to do, which is the same with all my writing about football, is communicate a love of the game throughout.

“First of all, because it’s true. I love football, I’ve always loved football and most of the people I’m writing for love football.

“So when you look at the betrayal of football, and that’s what this is on an industrial scale, it’s real villainy, it’s the betrayal of something wonderful.

“It’s not just unlawful and illegal. We feel it more than corruption in, say, the steel industry.

Sure, we’d be interested in that and find it illegal and wrong, but we don’t have absolute, precious, defining experiences of the steel industry from the time we were eight or nine years old.

“That’s why I decided to root [the book] in when I first fell in love with the World Cup and, therefore, football at the same time.

“Everyone remembers their first World Cup and while it might sound overblown to call that a transformative experience, I’d justify that by saying it suddenly opens out what was previously a private or intimate experience — of playing football in your own back yard or being taken to your first game at your local club — to this worldwide spectacle.

“Then, when you do get into the villains and the crooks and the deals, that love of football shines through and it’s that love that makes the betrayal so important.

“I hope that makes it more engaging and readable for people so, when they’re on page 150 and reading about someone they’ve never heard of taking a kick-back for a TV deal in South America, they’re still with you in the book.”

Soccer - FIFA World Cup USA 1994 - Draw - Caesars Palace Hotel, Las Vegas The master and apprentice. Source: EMPICS Sport/PA Images

But before there were World Cup TV rights changing hands for hundreds of millions of euro, before football centres of excellence were being built for nearly $30 million in Trinidad [population of 1.3 million] and before Russia and Qatar were the surprise choices to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup respectively; there was an election in 1974 that saw Joao Havelange begin his 24-year reign of Fifa.

The problem, as Conn clearly sets out in The Fall of the House of Fifa, both in relation to the larger than life Brazilian and his successor Sepp Blatter, is that the line between keeping an election promise and buying a vote is often blurred.

“I find it difficult to come to a definitive view on what the end goal was because you just can’t know what’s going on in other people’s hearts and minds,” says Conn.

People, like Blatter, like Mohammed bin Hammam, like Michel Platini and like Havelange, do have a mix of motives, it’s not necessarily just one thing.

“It’s like with [Chuck] Blazer. He’s one of the most interesting characters in Fifa and when it all came crashing down I said ‘now we know what he was up to all those years’.

“But when I first met him that time in Abu Dhabi, people told me: ‘he might look a bit ridiculous, but he works really hard and he loves football.’

“So I added that in the book, that it did appear to be true, because life isn’t simple. And those people in Fifa probably all felt like they were doing good, even when they were taking money.

“Most writing about this has always been really definitive that ‘oh they’re just slush funds used to buy votes’ but I just don’t agree with that. I don’t agree that it’s all just politics and I don’t agree that it’s all corrupt and the money goes to these FAs and doesn’t get spent on development.

“That’s blatantly not the case and there is a worldwide legacy of development, a concrete legacy. So I wanted to give due credit to that and, to do that, you have to give due credit to [development] as a motivation.

That said, the realpolitik is absolutely, 100%, there. It was also a system of patronage and, obviously, that’s a big reason for explaining why Blatter won five elections on the trot.

“He kept the money flowing to associations but that is not corruption.

“I put that to him directly and he said: ‘well if a politician says he’s going to build roads and hospitals and schools and then you elect him, and he builds roads and hospitals and schools, that’s not corruption.’”

“And he has a valid argument there.

“I mean, did [Gianni] Infantino believe that there should be greater development and there should be more of Fifa’s money spent on that development around the world? Probably yes. Why wouldn’t he? Any right-thinking person would.

“But did Infantino also know that was a massive political pitch he had to make to win the vote? And was he motivated by winning votes?

“Of course the answer is yes.

“So that’s what I’ve tried to do with the narrative and give more credit to Fifa’s motives and the genuine legacy than is generally acknowledged.”

SOCCER - UEFA Cup Handover - Glasgow Conn believes Infantino has a lot of prove as Fifa president. Source: Andrew Milligan/PA Images

What is clear reading the book is that Conn is yet to be convinced by the aforementioned Infantino and his promises to clean up an organisation that has seen seven members of the 22-man Fifa executive committee charged or accused by the US authorities of criminal wrongdoing, Beckenbauer — as we’ve seen — under criminal investigation and six further members sanctioned by the organisation’s own ethics committee.

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For a start, as he outlines above, there are clear similarities between his path to the top of Fifa and his predecessors, but it’s more than that too. Since taking power, some of Infantino’s actions have left Conn scratching his head.

“To be honest, more has come to light since I wrote the book. I was in Bahrain three weeks ago when those two ethics commission chairmen [Cornel Borbely and Hans-Joachim Eckert] got removed.

“Infantino’s performance, talking about ‘fake news’ and ‘Fifa-bashing’ was really not encouraging.

“As I said earlier, there is realpolitik, there is winning votes in this literally worldwide collection of delegate FAs. That’s always going to be there. But Infantino really needs to show he’s a leader.

“He’s got a long way to go to prove that he is the reforming character than he pitched himself as.”

As you may have figured by now, Conn’s book is not a hatchet job on world football’s governing body. Instead it layers the evidence of one betrayal on top of another in, at times, rage-inducing detail.

And while Blatter is clearly the villain of the piece — the cover gives that away — the book ends with a story that, while not quite making you feel sorry for the 81-year old, reminds you that he, and everyone else in The Fall of the House of Fifa, is human.

Conn is interviewing Blatter for the book over dinner in Zurich and wants to pay, as per journalistic best practise.

Blatter refuses, saying:

No, no, not in my restaurant. Well, it’s not mine but I am still the boss here.”

Of course he’s not, but he still believes he is, still believes he was doing right by the sport he governed over for 18 years and that’s what makes his story, and that of bin Hammam, Platini, Warner, Blazer and everyone else associated with Fifa so compelling.

Life, even in a world of seven-star hotels, côte de boeuf and porcini, is lived in shades of grey, not black and white.

The Fall of the House of FIFA is published by Yellow Jersey Press and available from 8 June.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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