As alleged cartoon supervillains go, there are few who can match either the nomenclature or the scope or even the look of one Sepp Blatter, a man who presides over the organization that possesses a monopoly over the biggest event in the world’s most popular sport.
Today, even amid widespread arrests for corruption, Blatter was re-elected as the head of FIFA, soccer’s governing body, which might be even more infuriating if it weren’t tinged with such a comic streak of arrogance.
There is no way to spin this story in which FIFA doesn’t come across as horrifyingly tainted; there is no way to imagine that Blatter, who may go down as one of the most awful people in the history of sports, was not involved, or that he somehow deserved to survive this and win that re-election on Friday. Given all we know, this appears to be a textbook example of white-collar crime, of selling one’s influence to the highest bidder in relation to World Cup sites (among other allegations), and of those decisions then being used to exploit the lower class in execrable ways. Even the arrests themselves – as detailed by a pair of New York Times reporters – were hilariously genteel, the six global soccer executives escorted out of a five-star Swiss hotel with their luggage in tow and loaded into a waiting Opel for booking. The whole thing felt like the resolution of the worst spy novel ever written.
These are truths that are difficult for soccer fans to ignore. But there is a larger philosophical question here, one that’s become increasingly relevant to modern sports, one that gets at the issues with our own American brand of football, with the deep conflicts inherent in college sports, with the problems that have riven baseball’s Hall of Fame into a referendum on ethics. And the question is whether we can separate the politics of sport from the sport itself.
Soccer, of course, is the world’s largest sport, and it’s not going to get any less popular even if Sepp Blatter suddenly announces that every World Cup in the past 20 years was predetermined by the results of an internal FIFA poker game. People love the game itself, the drama on the field – in the same way people love American football even as they despise the bureaucracy and secrecy inherent to the National Football League, and in the same way certain old souls still adore baseball even as the steroid question looms over its history. My favorite sport is college football, even as I recognize that the system takes advantage of the athletes I so enjoy watching, even as I recognize its inherent tendency toward corruption and exploitation.
It’s satisfying to watch FIFA get its comeuppance, if only because it doesn’t happen very often: A secretive and powerful cabal getting taken down because of its own arrogance. And while what happened under Blatter’s watch is far more serious and disturbing than anything to occur within the ranks of American sport in recent years, it at least affords us hope that we can condemn the bureaucracy while still adoring the sport itself.
It’s a duality that’s increasingly hard to justify in this day and age, but if soccer hadn’t risen dramatically in popularity in America over the past couple of decades, would American officials even have launched this investigation in the first place? At some point, politics intervene in everything, even our pastimes, and the only thing we can do is cling to the idea that we can still love the game, while despising the ones who exploit it.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb