When the Brazilian national team takes the field against Croatia on Thursday, in the opening match of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, it will no doubt produce the usual scintillating football, the beautiful game fans have come to expect. But it is more than likely that, outside the mammoth stadium, all will not be well. Neither the governing body of world football nor the country hosting the Cup are at their best in 2014. This week, even as the tournament begins, 78-year-old Sepp Blatter will break a solemn promise and announce that he will stand for another term as FIFA president. Mr Blatter will likely be re-elected in São Paulo even though this term was supposed to be his last, and in spite of the fact that fresh corruption allegations have surfaced – about FIFA’s decision to hand the 2022 World Cup to the oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. Not even Mr Blatter’s main opponent – the spectacular French midfielder Michel Platini, now the head of the European game – has emerged from the scandal unscathed. The business of football, thus, has become quite ugly.
Mr Blatter’s long tenure – he took over from his mentor, João Havelange, in 1998 – saw some well-organised World Cups but no decrease in corruption at the highest levels of the sports. FIFA and the Swiss courts eventually concluded, in 2012, that Mr Havelange was guilty of taking large bribes from sports management agencies in the 1990s. Mr Blatter has, at the very least, done nothing to create an impression that this culture may have changed. The unfortunate fact is that this is why Mr Blatter’s tenure must be judged a failure. He has, most notably, failed to spread football as much as he should have in the three largest countries – China, India, and the US. Even under Mr Havelange, Mr Blatter was in charge of FIFA’s “development programme”, which takes a sixth of the organisation’s budget and tries to expand the sports’ footprint. But the programme became nothing more than a network of patronage. In the process, few Americans will tune in to the Cup, and Chinese and Indians won’t be represented in Brazil, once again. Mr Blatter bears considerable responsibility for this failure. No wonder he is not scheduled to appear before Brazil’s crowds – he might be booed.
But then again, even the Brazilian national team, and its president, might be booed. The mood in the most football-loving of nations is ugly. The Confederations Cup two years ago was marred by street protests, and there might be similar protests this time. FIFA’s corruption, disdain for the Brazilian government, high prices and the expense of hosting have combined to cause this rebellious atmosphere. On Friday, as Brazil played a lacklustre friendly match against Serbia, they were booed by fans in São Paulo. They played at the old Morimba stadium, because the giant new Arena Corinthians hasn’t even received safety certifications yet. Outside, the megacity was rocked by clashes between police and strikers from the local transport union. As a consequence, a 250-km-long traffic jam developed.
It’s true that such troubles have a way of disappearing once the opening ceremony begins. Reporters and visitors turn their attention to reporting the sports rather than the readiness, and things fall into place. This is most likely what will happen in Brazil, too. The Arena will be hastily certified, the national team will no doubt despatch Croatia in style, and things will move on. But it would be a mistake to ignore the storm clouds that have built up in the interim. FIFA needs reform. Were it more transparent and less corrupt, the anger rocking Brazil over the Cup’s $ 11-billion price tag would be considerably less intense.