The brazen nonsense has been emanating from close to home in the past week, too. There was David Cameron, demanding on Thursday that Sepp Blatter must stand down, for example. That would have been be the same David Cameron who condemned the BBC’s Panorama five years ago for the journalism which exposed precisely what the FBI has now made public about Fifa. “It’s a free country and you have to roll with that,” Cameron said at the time, rolling his eyes.
But football’s theatre of the absurd has, of course, been located firmly in Zurich across the span of these crazy last three days. It began with the Feds marching into the five-star Baur au Lac hotel to drag Fifa’s executives from their beds. It developed into the hugely restorative spectacle of Loretta Lynch – Attorney General of the United States of America – laying out in detail precisely the kind of kick-backs and dirty money that the heroically indefatigable journalist Andrew Jennings – Panorama’s man putting in the hard yards – has been doing for years. And then it collapsed into what we witnessed on Friday: the noiseless, compliant procession of Fifa delegates into voting booths, to the backdrop of anaesthetising elevator music, where they calmly re-elected the man who has presided over the dismemberment of the notion that football is the people’s game.
If it had actually mattered, and if Sepp Blatter had not already gathered up Africa’s support en bloc with his offer of milk and honey, then it could be said that the man certainly knows how to deliver a love letter. All the rhetorical devices were there when he stood up to plead for votes: the hardening of the eyes for the preliminary talk of “fait face à la tempête” (face the storm); the fluttering hand gestures accompanying the promise to “arranger la Fifa” (fix Fifa); the dramatic pauses; the trilled ‘r’ of dramatic intent in “recouvrir notre image”; and – a personal favourite – “pardon my French” – which he said in French before suggesting that Fifa was “the goose of the golden egg.” Not the ideal image for a man in the midst of a corruption crisis.
Even as he spoke, soaring way above the shy and occasionally stuttering hesitancy of his challenger, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein – a man talking with his head down to the ground – protestations sounded from those many people who have watched the propriety and sanctity of their beloved game being devoured. The Football Foundation’s expression of indignation about Fifa was issued by its own president, Lord Pendry, who is not one for love letters. It mentioned the £18m it has invested over 15 years on real, grassroots football needs in County Durham alone. Fifa, by comparison, spent £17.6m on services at a single Zurich hotel last year, according to its own financial results – double the money it had invested in women’s football between 2011 and 2014.
While the world waited to see if the game might actually be up for Blatter and his five-star house of cards, someone within these shores also ruminated on Twitter – not for the first time this week – about why the BBC and ITV are not being asked where they see any ethical justification in handing multi-millions in broadcasting rights to an organisation which the FBI says has syphoned income directly into the bank account of its former vice-president, Jack Warner. It was hard to disagree with the notion that Cameron should be demanding that these broadcasters refuse to televise the next Fifa World Cups.
The cold truth, of course, is that a boycott by either or both organisations would be a mere speck of dust in Fifa’s rear-view mirror. “More of your famous British morality,” Blatter would probably say when he heard about it. The BBC and the British may have been the bulldog gripping Fifa by the ankle these past years but they are about as significant to staging a football tournament as the England football team are to its closing stages. It would take a boycott by the American heavyweights – Fox and NBC – to make the slightest imprint. And in any case, matches supersede morality in the priority list of most supporters, for whom this past week has been more of the same, except with the Feds as pretty decoration. Just as the United States started this whole imbroglio, it will need them to take it on and make good on their promise that they will turn over more stones.
A charismatic challenger to the oligarchy might have helped this week. You wonder whether Gary Lineker, an impressive, intelligent articulator of the disgust British football feels for Blatter, might have challenged African minds in a way that a Jordanian prince did not. But for the foreseeable future, the search for the soul of football must take us elsewhere.
Like the patch of reclaimed land at Moston, one of Manchester’s least celebrated districts, where a club formed out of disgust at the corporatisation, soaring prices, and indifferent owners of Manchester United pn Friday night marked their 10-year anniversary by playing an inaugural game against Benfica at the new stadium they have built. It was 47 years to the day since Matt Busby’s United beat that Portuguese club in a European Cup Final.
There is idealism but no naivete in that club: FC United of Manchester. They did not find the £6.3m money needed to build the stadium – that’s four months’ hotel use in Fifa currency – growing on trees. They raised £2m of it by issuing community shares in the club. They attracted £275,000 through loans by drawing on a social investment tax relief scheme. And when they needed £52,000 to build a kitchen they appealed for – and secured – it through crowdfunding.
One of the two men mowing the new pitch in the dawn rain was goalkeeper Nick Culkin, who in a brief Manchester United career made the bench for the 1999 Champions League final. He now chooses to mix mowing with myriad other jobs at the stadium which was packed to rafters last night and could have sold out twice over. “There’s no reason why, if you run a business successfully, you have to run it in a negative way,” said the club’s spokesman, Andy Walker. It was a very small crumb of comfort in a wretched week for football.