Monday, June 09, 2014

Alleged Adidas-led Fifa rebellion may leave Blatter 'a happy president' for some time yet

Adidas, the firm that gave Sepp Blatter to the world of football, is said by some to have now turned on him and Fifa over the – latest - World Cup scandal.
Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. In fact, they and he may well remain in close agreement – as they largely have for more than three decades, one unfortunate time Blatter was suspected of wearing a Puma training top aside.
Adidas supremo Horst Dassler plucked Blatter from the marketing department of luxury Swiss watchmaker Longines, trained him up for several months in Landersheim offices then installed him on the first – if lofty - rung of the Fifa ladder.
‘He taught me the finer points of sports politics – an excellent education for me,’ Blatter later said of Dassler, who also provided useful instruction in how to best enjoy a good cigar.
Fifa and its now-president Blatter find themselves befogged by the Sunday Times’ fine investigative reporting on alleged backhanders shared among world football’s governing body to secure the 2022 World Cup for Qatar.
Today’s newspapers – including a Metro front-page, baffling subbing reference to ‘negative tenure’ and all – hail an apparent rebellion by Fifa’s main sponsors, long-loyal among Adidas among them.
And yet the sportswear giant’s supposedly-accusatory statement merely parrots what they little-committally said three years ago – with scant critical substance either.
Of course, they deplore the ‘negative tenor’ of current ‘public debate’ about Fifa, among supporters, the media and politicians both fair-minded and bandwagon-hopping alike.
Even Blatter himself might well go along with this, mind – not necessarily because he nor Adidas regrets how Fifa has behaved, but how they are being roundly condemned for apparently behaving. What really matters more, what the allegations suggest or simply that such allegations have been aired?
Back when Blatter became Fifa’s general secretary in May 1981, he was not only a Dassler protégé but also serving another key Adidas ally, Fifa president Joao Havelange.
In cahoots since the early 1970s, Dassler and Havelange had ruthlessly toppled Englishman Sir Stanley Rous as Fifa president in 1974.
They cannily and incessantly targeted and won over those federations and confederations across, say, Asia and Africa who felt legitimately alienated and under-represented by the Rous regime.
The vast expansion of what was and remains the world’s game, plus the wooing of blue-chip sponsors, has brought benefits however off-putting some Fifa-sanctioned practices may seem.
The organisation did spend $183million last year on football development, albeit still less than the $276million spent on itself and probably not quite convincingly enough to secure Sepp his dreamed-of Nobel Peace Prize.
And yet while the hand-in-glove relationship with Adidas helped accelerate perhaps-inevitable modernisation – and marketisation – it did also culminate in the eventual collapse of marketing arm ISL amid claims of mismanagement and backhanders.
Havelange ultimately paid some price following dogged investigations by a persistent few – British journalist Andrew Jennings leading among them – though resigned through ill health in 2013 before he could be expelled as honourary president.
His son-in-law Ricardo Teixeira’s long-tight grip on the Brazilian game was finally ended thanks to associated corruption allegations.
Other senior Fifa less-than-worthies who have ended up exiled and/or disgraced include South America’s Nicolas Leoz, Central America’s Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer and Africa’s Issa Hayatou and Jacques Anouma, leaving Blatter still reigning supreme.
Hayatou stood unsuccessfully against Blatter in 2002, as did nine years later the current man of the media-furore moment, Mohammed bin Hammam.
The Qatari was a friend and benefactor of Blatter’s ahead of his successful 1998 presidential run, allegedly lending the use of his own private aircraft, before opting to pay his own way towards power.
One of the issues now at keenly-contested dispute is whether his later Sunday largesse offered elsewhere was motivated more by personal Fifa ambitions or to secure 2022 for Qatar.
Blatter may have been the man opening the envelope and announcing the Middle East emirate as 2022 host, in what on technical and emotional grounds seems an even more mindboggling decision than Pulp being pipped to the 1994 Mercury Music Prize by M People.
General Fifa-smearing aside, however, the latest reports may not quite shift Blatter too far from his frequent self-proclamation of being ‘a happy president’.
(Admittedly such reflections have invariably come after being emphatically re-elected or basking in the gratitude of finding in Fifa reserves generous bonuses for member federations and confederations.)
Blatter has hardly been among the heartiest fans of a 2022 World Cup in Qatar – unlike, say, Uefa president and mooted 2015 challenger Michel Platini.
With bin Hammam already banned from football for life after Blazer broke ranks with bribery allegations in 2011 and thus already a busted flush, the Sunday Times stories may merely be adding – admittedly emphatic - insult to his own already-festering injury.
While also potentially firing a warning-shot across the bows of anyone else who may consider challenging Blatter, he of the folksy patter only occasionally turning tetchier. Ponder on, Platini?
Meanwhile, millions of pounds still pour through Fifa sponsors and customers in Fifa coffers, handily helped by demanding and winning tax exemption when occupying obliging host nations for a World Cup – and millions of fans will be genuinely transfixed once the actual football kicks off on Thursday.
Football and crude commerce have long known their mutual benefits.
Why, even the sainted Pele – exemplifying more than even any other Brazilian 'the beautiful game' – could play both games savvily.
He delayed the start of one 1970 World Cup tie to stoop and tie his laces – perhaps a genuine gesture, but also ensuring colour TV cameras zoomed in on his branded boots.
His footwear actually bore not three stripes but one apiece, after Adidas’s broken-family rivals Puma had broken a pact not to compete for Pele.
That incident features in business journalist Barbara Smit’s compelling while dispiriting investigative page-turner, aptly-titled ‘Pitch Invasion: Adidas, Puma And The Making Of Modern Sport’.
For modern sports fans to have faith restored in those who do serious business out of ‘only a game’, the game-changers do probably need to be national federations and/or corporate backers.
(Incidentally, the post-Salt Lake-purged International Olympic Committee might cock a snooty snook these days at their still-compromised football counterparts, yet a fair few officials with eyebrow-raising records remain in richly-expensed and influential roles.)
The English FA may have belatedly opposed Blatter and demanded better Fifa transparency, albeit in a rather transparent fit of pique ever since clumsy love-bombing failed to win the 2018 World Cup.
The prospect of many more nations rushing to munch on the Fifa hand that feeds them, though, feels unlikely – as does the sort of mass sponsor boycott that could really steer any FIFA World Cup off-course.
Adidas, like BP, like Visa, like Coca-Cola – all of which have faced their own personal PR embarrassments before - may finally be saying something, but their talk sounds nowhere near tough enough.
This alleged rebellion might encourage some fans desperate feel a little bit better about football off the field as well as on. And that those fields be in the best, most amenable locations.
And yet anyone optimistically expecting Adidas and others to follow up timid words with dramatic action may find the clock – or Longines watch – will tick for a long time yet.