David Cameron is angry, Prince William is disappointed, English football is bemused. How could Sepp Blatter be comfortably re-elected as president of Fifa despite leading an organisation apparently bedevilled by corruption? Perhaps they should remind themselves what happened during Blatter’s first election campaign. His opponent was Lennart Johansson, the head of Europe’s football body Uefa. Johansson endeared himself to Africa’s 53 voters – around a quarter of the electorate – during an interview with the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet.
“When I got to South Africa the whole room was full of blackies and it’s dark when they sit down all together,” said Johansson. “What’s more it's no fun when they’re angry. I thought, ‘if this lot get in a bad mood it won’t be so funny’.” As if it couldn’t get any worse, Johansson eventually apologised in a roundabout way ending with the inevitable excuse that he couldn’t possibly be racist because “I have many coloured friends”.
To win an election you need to understand your electorate. Blatter got it, Johansson didn’t. While Johansson was acting like a colonial buffoon, Blatter was promising extra World Cup places for Africa and Asia as well as more direct funding for national associations. What they did with that money was up to them.
Blatter also understood Fifa’s history. At the 1966 World Cup Fifa awarded a single place between Africa, Asia and Oceania; the rest went to Europe and South America. Fifa was a Eurocentric body, slow to change with the times. Blatter’s predecessor and mentor, João Havelange, was the first Fifa president to recognise the electoral power of the developing world, offering more places and money to Africa and Asia. Havelange brought the World Cup to Asia for the first time; Blatter promised he would bring it to Africa.
Europe still hasn’t learnt its lesson. Last week Johansson’s successor, Michel Platini, was lamenting the traditional powers’ decreasing influence. Fifa “loses its authority”, he said, because too many other countries have joined, making Europe and South America a minority.
Platini is not the only one struggling to accept the new world order. Greg Dyke, the FA’s chairman, talks about a European boycott of the World Cup without stopping to think how this might sound to the rest of the world. Even criticism of the decision to play the 2022 World Cup in Qatar – as valid as that criticism is – is seen as offensive to many in Africa and Asia. This is a World Cup: why shouldn’t it be hosted outside the West every once in a while?
European football leaders have failed to even attempt to build any sort of broad coalition. There are many football figures in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean who are uncomfortable with the way Fifa is run but they haven’t been brought on board. A clean-up campaign that wasn’t so Eurocentric would have far more chance of gaining global support.
That means coming out in support of another African World Cup. It means criticising the decision to host the 2022 tournament in Qatar without denigrating the idea of the first Middle Eastern World Cup. And though there are enormous transparency problems with Blatter’s programme to redistribute Fifa’s gargantuan profits to member associations, it means supporting a similar plan that will truly develop the game in every country.
None of this is to ignore the corruption. The FBI and Swiss police investigations may lead to more scalps. But we have to accept that Fifa has made its decision. If we truly want to change it, that means working in partnership with the rest of world, not staring out into a room of foreigners and wondering why they don’t like us.
Steve Bloomfield is Monocle’s executive editor.