At dawn on May 27, 2015, Swiss police raided Zurich’s five-star Baur au Lac hotel and arrested seven senior officials of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). According to the Guardian journalist David Conn, “Some of them were led out of back doors into waiting cars, and shielded from photographers by thoughtful hotel staff holding Baur au Lac bed sheets in front of them.”
The Swiss police were acting jointly with the FBI; then-FBI director James Comey described the defendants as having “fostered a culture of corruption and greed.” As Conn recounts in The Fall of the House of FIFA, much of the investigation, which had begun by 2011, concerned FIFA’s choices of Russia to host the World Cup in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. Murky payments continue to surface.
To many observers, the dawn raids were reassuring: the US, as the world’s policeman, could still catch international outlaws. But two years later, things look different. FIFA remains largely unreformed, and Western countries seem powerless to force change. Conn is longer on reporting than analysis. However, his book shows that the saga of world soccer’s governing body since the 1970s has foreshadowed geopolitical shifts, notably the waning of the political and economic dominance of the West.
Most modern team sports were codified in Victorian Britain, partly in the hope of distracting schoolboys from masturbation. But the British saw little point in playing against foreigners, and many major international sporting bodies were created by the French. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association was founded in Paris in 1904 by seven continental European countries. FIFA controlled the rules of soccer and oversaw national federations. Yet it was always a weak regulator, with little say over professional clubs. Its power derived from its one prestigious property: the quadrennial men’s World Cup, first played in Uruguay in 1930.
In 1932 FIFA’s headquarters moved to neutral, centrally located Switzerland. Into the 1970s FIFA remained a European gentlemen’s club, led by elderly men who believed in Victorian ideals of fair play and amateurism. Sir Stanley Rous, the British sports teacher who became FIFA’s president in 1961, did the job unpaid. Women’s soccer was discouraged: England’s Football Association actually banned it from 1921 to 1971. After decolonization, Asian and African countries joined FIFA. Rous—a protector of apartheid South Africa—didn’t notice the wind of change. In 1974 the Brazilian businessman João Havelange, campaigning on a third-worldist platform, defeated him in an election for president of FIFA. Rous retired, refusing a pension, and rejecting as egotistical the idea of naming the World Cup trophy after him, according to the sports historian David Goldblatt.
The angular, unsmiling Havelange, who ran FIFA for nearly a quarter-century, until 1998, presided over a very different era.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.