Between 1961 and 1974, an English man named Stanley Rous was the President of FIFA. Rous was the sixth person to have the honour of serving in the role – perhaps unsurprisingly the sixth European and indeed the third Englishman. Rous was the man who brought the insular Great Britain back into the focus of the world. Despite inventing the sport in the 1800’s and their dominance well into the 1920’s, England refused to compete in a World Cup until 1950 due to a strained relationship with FIFA, which was patched up by Rous himself. A seemingly strong CV for FIFA presidential candidacy.
There have been only two FIFA presidents since Rous, and both have had to struggle with the difficulties created under Rous’ 15 year stewardship of football’s governing body. An organisation that was already deeply Eurocentric when Rous took over the reins, his well-documented support for apartheid Rhodesia and South Africa severely strained the relationship with Asian and African football confederations.
From Rous followed the much-maligned presidencies of Brazilian João Havelange, and the notorious incumbent Sepp Blatter. The canon in western media is that Havelange and Blatter’s presidencies are mired in corruption and ineptitude. To an extent this is very true – Blatter’s role in allowing rampant corruption to infiltrate the sport is damaging. Calls for his resignation on these grounds have been persistent in the media over the past decade, coming to a head earlier this year.
In response, Blatter finally announced his impending resignation in June, arguing that “profound reform” was needed in the organisation he holds “very dear”. But too much of the criticism levelled in the British, American and indeed Australian press about Blatter’s presidency blatantly ignores the difficult situation FIFA has been in since Rous’ presidency finished. Havelange and Blatter focussed a large part of their presidencies rewriting the wrongs of the euro-centric control of the game under Rous.
To non-western media, Blatter is in fact considered to be one of the few men of great power to genuinely give opportunities to the developing world. By giving Africa the opportunity to host a world cup through his policy of continental rotation, Blatter won many admirers. He built upon the legacy of his predecessor Havelange, who drew the ire of European football associations during his presidency for the decision to expand the World cup from 24 to 32 competing states, thus reducing the percentage of European Teams competing. This ire is the root of the vitriol levelled at Blatter
Nowhere is this more evident than in the way developing states have been scapegoated for FIFA’s problems. For instance, at FIFA’s congress, all member states are given equal standing. This prompts significant criticism from those who don’t believe that Guinea-Bissau should have the same level of influence as, say, Germany. So believes English FA head Greg Dyke, who stated earlier this year that Western administrators have a “different set of values” compared to those from Africa, where politicians prefer to “look after their families”.
This is not only a deeply stigmatic profile of the continent, but also exasperatingly ignorant. It smells distinctly of the sort of neo-colonialist rhetoric that once defined the approach Rous took to African football administrators during his time at the helm. This is a large part of why member state associations are so sceptical every time the West calls foul over Blatter or the FIFA executive.
Moving forward, member states on all sides need to recognise this clear disconnect which divides world football in two. Highly reflective of world politics generally, the belief that the global south will be corrupt with power is dangerous, particularly when the West’s own house is barely in order. For Western Europe to attempt to dictate terms would be disastrous for the organisation, but so too is the status-quo of unchecked power and lack of transparency across the board. For all of Blatter’s numerous failings, the gradual hacking away at Euro-centrism ought to be respected, and any reform process must keep this principle of globalising the game at its core.