REVIEW: FIFA Uncovered (Netflix documentary, 4 episodes)
If you want to remind yourself just how insanely corrupt world soccer’s governing body FIFA has been since the mid 1970s, then the new four-part Netflix documentary, "FIFA Uncovered," is a very well re-constructed history from the time that Joao Havelange took over the FIFA presidency in 1974, right up until the FBI’s pre-dawn raid on the Zürich Baur au Lac hotel in May 2015 that saw the arrest of several members of the body’s powerful 24-person Executive Committee (ExCo). It’s easy to forget how many rogues were at play here, especially when the current FIFA President – the oleaginous, manipulative Gianni Infantino – is so mad for power and money that he makes his predecessor Sepp Blatter look like a deceptively benevolent uncle.
This documentary series is very strong on interviewees looking back in anger, bafflement and bemusement, and includes the aged but now quite jocose Blatter spinning yarns from his days at the helm. Now, as then, Blatter has a troubled relationship with the truth. He regrets what happened at FIFA during his tenure, but “my conscience is clear,” he maintains. In no way does he bear any responsibility. After all, who knew Concacaf President Jack Warner and his larger-than-life sidekick Chuck Blazer were brazen crooks? (The answer: everyone, both inside FIFA and out).
It's instructive to watch old footage of Blatter looking shifty at various FIFA congresses down the years when he’s being challenged for his leadership, or when FIFA hit the headlines yet again due to cash crises or bribery allegations. Following the 2001 collapse of the sports marketing firm International Sports & Leisure (ISL), to which FIFA under Havelange had sold the World Cup broadcast rights for a relative pittance, Blatter’s deputy Michel Zen-Ruffinen wrote an internal report asking too many awkward questions about the lack of accountability and transparency in FIFA’s chaotic finances. Blatter avoided those questions by forcing out the firefighter and then locking the door, despite the fire still burning inside – FIFA’s tried and trusted way of dealing with dissent.
Former Trinidad & Tobago goalkeeper Shaka Hislop tells the darkly funny tale of how Warner took the multi-million dollar proceeds from T&T’s first ever World Cup campaign in 2006 and declared that, due to high running costs, the players would be left with exactly $800 a head. Hislop says that $15 million of that cash is still unaccounted for, even though the players went on strike and sued for the amounts promised (they ended up settling out of court). Warner also took $10 million from South Africa to supposedly fund soccer for the African diaspora in the Caribbean. In return, South Africa got Warner’s vote to host the 2010 World Cup. No facilities to support the soccer in Caribbean’s African diaspora have ever been built. We do hear, though, that Chuck took a 10% cut.
There is also due focus on the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, back in 2010 when, much to the world’s surprise, the USA was outbid by the tiny but scorching desert without a proper soccer stadium to its name. Phaedra Almajid, who worked on the country’s media campaign, tells how she was hauled in to translate at a meeting in Angola with all three African members of the ExCo. Issa Hayatou, Jacques Anouma and Amos Adamu accepted $1.5 million each from Qatar in exchange for their votes (they negotiated a raise after an initial offer of $1 million each). To invest in soccer in their home countries, of course. Almajid, who was fired three days after that meeting, was no whistle-blower – she was co-operating with a FIFA enquiry – but her name was made public, and she was strong-armed by Qatar into recanting and saying that she’d lied. It’s good to see the story on the record here, and to see how the secretary general of the Qatari bid, Hassan Al Thawadi, becomes quickly defensive when confronted with the bribery allegations. (Spoiler: he refutes them.)
Blatter’s former advisor Guido Tognoni points out that it’s all very well attacking Qatar, but the blame lies ultimately with FIFA. “FIFA is the system. The system is FIFA,” he says. And you won’t disagree with him after watching "FIFA Uncovered." While World Cup hosting rights are no longer awarded via the ExCo, FIFA still suffers from the same chronic credibility problems that come from being an organization made up of unelected, unaccountable administrators running a body big on empty slogans about peace and unity, but extremely short on decent governance.
What’s missing for me is a Part Five that might have looked at a better way forward, with some positive ideas about a future FIFA released from the grip of mediocre, power-possessed, authoritarian functionaries like Blatter and Infantino. What are the alternatives to the one-country, one-vote system that now sees World Cups awarded by all member nations, rather than a select group of privileged cronies, but which still gives disproportionate power to, say, 30 Caribbean nations over 10 for the whole of South America? How can FIFA be a truly worthy and transparent independent body that does justice to the claims in its statutes that it stands for human rights and equality? In short, how can we purge it of corruptible flunkies with little clue about soccer’s true needs, and start all over again so that Netflix doesn’t have to broadcast a follow-up series in 20 years’ time wondering why on earth nothing has changed. FIFA is still the system, and that system’s a moral wreck.