It has occurred to me at regular intervals during the past decades that one of the problems that entangle FIFA is this: its location. Switzerland. Is that a good place to be for an organization in charge of a sport that can lay claim to being the most global activity that the world has ever known?
I mean, Switzerland? You can hear the classic put-down of the Swiss in the film they made from Grahame Greene’s novel “The Third Man.” In which Harry Lime tartly points out that the Swiss “had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
Lime’s dismissal of the Swiss is hopelessly unfair, of course. For a start, neither Albert Einstein nor Henry Dunant were part of any cuckoo clock tradition. But Lime had a point. There is something disconcertingly contradictory about the Swiss.
There they sit, nicely in the center of Europe, with a widespread facility in languages (German, French, Italian, English) -- perfectly set up, you would think, to be the most international of countries. Yet the typical reaction of other Europeans when the topic of Switzerland comes up is a mildly dismissive, certainly bewildered “Oh, the Swiss.” Somehow, for all their centrality and their worldliness, the Swiss don’t fit. They are felt to be “apart.”
Well, one definition of “apart” would certainly be “out of touch,” which sounds ridiculous but becomes a good deal less ridiculous when you consider the recent remarks of Francois Carrard. Yes, he’s Swiss. Not only Swiss, but a lawyer, too. He now brings this ominous combination to soccer, following his recent appointment as the head of FIFA’s 15-member reform committee.
What Carrard has to say about soccer in the USA is straight out of the cuckoo clock tradition - and you can forget about the clock part of it this time:
“For the United States, football -- soccer -- does not have the same weight as baseball, basketball and American football. There it's just an ethnic sport for girls in school.”
This is the considered opinion of a man who has just been appointed to what many would consider a key position in the campaign to clean up the FIFA corruption mess. But ... can he really be that ignorant?
Maybe we’re not to take him seriously, maybe he was just joking. A Swiss joke. Did Mark Twain get this wrong, then? He is credited with the wonderful remark that “German humor is no laughing matter.” Could it be that he was really thinking of Swiss humor?
Here’s the thought. A rather humorless Swiss culture has taken root at FIFA. My first dealings with FIFA were in the early 1960s, through its then general secretary, Helmut Kaser. Who was Swiss. He stepped down in 1981, to be replaced by Sepp Blatter, another Swiss. Who added an extra Swiss touch by marrying Kaser’s daughter.
I’m not sure if this marked the beginning of the Swissification of FIFA -- it may already have been well under way. But from then on, it did seem that top FIFA jobs went to Swiss applicants. The February 1984 FIFA News announced two major appointments: a new Head of the Finance Department, and a new Press Officer. Both appointees were Swiss.
When Blatter moved up to the FIFA President in 1998, it was another Swiss, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, who replaced him as general secretary. Zen-Ruffinen I liked, lively and personable and definitely with a well-tuned sense of humor. He lasted four years before he fell out with Blatter, who dismissed him. In came yet another Swiss, this time a lawyer who had been FIFA’s Finance Director since 1999 -- Urs Linsi, who I found absolutely humorless.
Humor returned when Linsi departed in 2007. This was something new, Gallic humor -- well, black humor anyway. Linsi’s replacement was Frenchman Jerome Valcke, who only six months earlier had been “released” from his FIFA job as Director of Marketing. A New York court had found him guilty of lying during negotiations with sponsors. Blatter, commenting that “FIFA cannot possibly accept such conduct among its own employees” had released but, he made clear, not fired Valcke.
So Blatter, having excoriated Valcke, then quickly re-hired him. Blatter has given us other examples of his sense of humor. Swiss jokes. Usually, they fall flat. Sometimes - as with his comments on female players -- they are just plain embarrassing. The sort of jokes that then have to be explained. And such explanations invariably make matters worse.
Incredibly, Carrard seems unaware of Blatter’s gaffes. How can he not know that while women’s soccer may not matter too much in Switzerland, it is of considerable importance in the USA, and is not to be trifled with?
Even more incredibly, he seems to know absolutely nothing about the development of soccer in the USA, nor its current status. An ethnic sport? This is a reminder that Blatter himself has never shown a secure grasp of what is happening to the sport in this country.
So the image assembles of a FIFA culture, essentially Swiss, and therefore “apart,” with a self-importance and a wooden humor that invite misjudgements. Maybe those wretched Alps (I’ve never liked mountains) play a role here, a barrier, a high barrier, that puts the Swiss above and beyond the rest of us.
Which is fine for the Swiss, but not for soccer. For the sport, a move to a different atmosphere would be a good idea, something and somewhere more down-to-earth, livelier, and certainly more transparent -- that is, less shrouded in the mists of Swiss apartness.