It is no longer possible to pretend that Fifa, the international football body, is anything other than corrupt. No one can doubt James Comey, director of the FBI, which arrested Fifa executives last week, when he said that “illegal payments, kickbacks and bribes became a way of doing business at Fifa”. It is, therefore, no longer possible to avoid a decision about what to do about it.
Last week, the representatives of the world’s national football associations gave their preliminary response. As Gary Lineker put it: “Football is a simple game: 209 men vote for 200 minutes and, at the end, Sepp Blatter always wins.”
That is not the end of the matter, however. As Lineker also said: “The only way this revolting organisation will change is if the major football federations walk out.” The Football Association, and the associations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, should do so. This would mean threatening to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and – because a threat is no use unless one is prepared to carry it out – being willing to do so.
There are two objections to such a course of action. One is that international organisations are bound to be corrupt; this is simply how the world works. Look at the International Olympic Committee, say the cynics; look at the United Nations. But there are always choices to be made between imperfect options. The IOC is, in fact, a good example of an organisation that recognised it had a problem with corruption and did something about it.
The other objection is that for Britain (or for the football associations of its constituent nations) to assert a leadership role would be patronising and colonialist. Yes, we English and British have been high-handed in the past about a game that we invented. The reason Fifa has a French name is that we wanted nothing to do with foreigners playing “our” game. None of the British nations took part in the World Cup, which started in 1930, until 1950.
But being the home of the sport is an advantage, too. In many parts of the world, football is regarded as the English game. The football club Milan is not called Milano, because it was started by English expats; in Spain, football managers are often referred to as “Mister”. So it might give our FA some extra moral force if we were to give a lead.
So far, Greg Dyke, chairman of the FA, has been admirably forthright in calling for Mr Blatter to go. There is no need to prove that he knew of wrongdoing (as Oliver James writes today, that is a complex question): as Fifa president, he must take responsibility for what has happened. The organisation can regain its credibility only under new a leader; so, now that he has been re-elected, the FA should refuse to have anything to do with it until he goes.
It was notable that Gary Neville, a former player, said that the events of last week were “just wrong”. Today’s players still feel that they should “stay out of the politics of the game”, he wrote, but “this is about players wielding their power against corruption”. If the players were to lend their weight to a campaign to pull out of Fifa, that could help to change the balance of the argument.
Then there are the sponsors: mostly big US companies with priceless reputations to protect. If Britain can help to persuade other big European countries to join a boycott, it is hard to see how Fifa could refuse to reform itself.
Before the FBI arrests there were already loud calls for a boycott of the Qatar World Cup in 2022, both because of the way the right to stage it had been obtained and because of the cost in human lives of building its stadiums.
Now the case for action against Fifa is more urgent and immediate. The organisation can and must be forced to clean up its act. It is time, in league with others, to give a lead and to issue some credible threats.Reuse content