The Beautiful, Corrupt Game

Marlo Safi

‘Jogo Bonito,” the Portuguese phrase Nike adopted as a marketing slogan in the build up to the 2006 FIFA World Cup, means “play beautifully.” The idea behind Nike’s multi-pronged ad campaign was to curb diving, faking, and bribery while promoting the beautiful aspects of the sport — professionalism, teamwork, integrity, skill. The great, retired French striker Eric Cantona was featured in some of the ads, reading from the “Manifesto Futbolista”: “Arguing is for politicians and diving is for swimmers.”

Aspirational words, to be sure — Cantona’s own checkered record of sportsmanship as a player made him a particularly odd choice to read them — and ones that have made little impression on the game at the executive level, a rareified stratosphere of corruption from which revelations of bribes, racketeering, wire fraud, and other greed-related crimes have become so commonplace that they no longer shock anyone. The sport is so corrupt it could put a Somali presidential election to shame.

So the arrest in Paris Tuesday of Michel Platini, another retired French great, only resigns fans like myself to what we have long known: The beautiful game is dirty to its core.

Platini led UEFA, the confederation that governs football in Europe, between 2007 and 2015, when his tenure was cut short by a four-year ban from the sport for accepting bribes in connection with the selection of World Cup hosts dating back to 2010 and broadcast rights for CONCACAF Gold Cup tournaments from 1996 to 2003. Platini previously alleged that French president Nicolas Sarkozy had urged him to cast the country’s ballot for Qatar to hold the 2022 World Cup during a lunch also attended by Sarkozy’s sports advisor, Sophie Dion, and the current emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, just nine days before the vote was held in 2010.

This process that led to Qatar’s selection would later prompt Swiss authorities and the FBI to investigate FIFA’s corruption, which claimed a number of prominent scalps. Long-time FIFA president Sepp Blatter was fired from the post and, after an appeals process, banned from the sport for six years. Chuck Blazer, the former FIFA official and American football executive, pled guilty to charges including racketeering conspiracy and money laundering and agreed to cooperate with the probe in exchange for leniency. Blazer, a Falstaffian character resembling Karl Marx in appearance, kept a $6,000-per-month Trump Tower apartment for his cats.

The comically excessive corruption of the Blatters and Blazers and Platinis of the world has indisputably hurt the beautiful game that FIFA ostensibly exists to protect and grow. Despite the gestures toward reform of Blatter’s successor, Gianni Infantino, the majority of fans around the world still believed in 2017 that corruption was the organization’s primary issue, according to a survey by Transparency International. Fifty-three percent said they had no confidence in FIFA. Ninety-eight percent said corruption concerned them the most. Sixty-six percent noted referee bribing. Thirty percent mentioned third-party ownership. Twenty-nine percent were concerned about human-rights abuses. (And rightfully so: Qatar’s World Cup preparations have relied heavily on migrant workers kept in appalling conditions of near-indentured servitude. Four-thousand of them are expected to die on the job before the first match kicks off in 2022.)

While we are unsure whether more dirty details will be unearthed in l’Affaire Platini, there’s little left that could surprise football fans at this point. The game’s universality has an unparalleled ability to lift the spirits of nations and people who often rely on it for a sense of rootedness and belonging that they can hardly find anywhere else. Someone such as Mohamed Salah, Liverpool Football Club’s star winger and his native Egypt’s national treasure, is not just a global superstar, but the best possible representative for his struggling country. In Liverpool, his presence has caused an 18.9 percent drop in anti-Muslim hate crimes since he signed on in June 2017, according to a Stanford study. The game has a precious ability to bring out the best in its fans. Love of sport — fair, skilled, professional, sport — gives nations rare opportunities to showcase the best of what they have to offer.

If only it weren’t tainted by the corruption of a parasitic executive class.

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