At a time when a two-year World Cup cycle, which, among other things, will rake it in for Fifa, and elite competitions – talk of top clubs playing only among themselves – refuses to die in Europe and has been encouraged in Africa by Gianni Infantino, discovery+ is streaming the documentary, The Men Who Stole The World Cup.
The title could be a hat-tip to David Yallop’s book called How they Stole The Game which talks of all things foul at Fifa. Spread over two episodes, both nearly one hour long, the documentary details the chronic tale of greed and corruption of those who ran the world game till a dramatic crackdown by US law agencies ahead of the 2015 Fifa congress in Zurich.
Interviews with Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert, who co-wrote The Ugly Game: The Qatari Plot To Buy The World Cup, form the bedrock of the narrative. Calvert and Blake were part of the Sunday Times Insight team which broke the story following an investigation. It was 2014 when Blake says they got a tip-off from a “source” she and Calvert had worked with previously. A tip-off that “could potentially blow the lid of Qatar hosting the World Cup.” Unlike “Deep Throat” in All The President’s Men, the source for the Fifa story does not pass information from darkened corners of parking lots but met the journalists at a London hotel. The documents though weren’t handed over. Too sensitive, says Calvert. Instead, they had to work at an office and with computers provided by the source.
Produced and directed by Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme, the team that created Get me Roger Stone which looks at the man credited with getting Donald Trump to the White House, the tone is set early through voiceovers of corruption on an industrial scale over Russia and Qatar’s World Cup bids. A montage of Sepp Blatter looking smug in a chair and surrounded by suits, one of which is Franz Beckenbauer, appears and Fifa is compared to the mafia. It isn’t the only time the mob is referenced. A former FBI investigator says that he looked at the Fifa hierarchy as he would at a mafia organisation: boss, under-boss or consigliere, captains and soldiers.
Through interviews with former football stars Juergen Klinsmann and Landon Donovan, Guido Tognoni, the former Fifa media director who was sacked by Blatter, an officer of the Internal Revenue Service, Sunil Gulati, the former president of the US soccer federation and the partner of Charles ‘Chuck’ Blazer, the former Fifa executive committee member who turned informer, and archival material, the well-documented story of the Fifa scandal that led to many being charged for wire fraud, money laundering and racketeering is told.
Blazer’s idiosyncratic life with a pet parrot, an apartment for cats in New York’s Trump Tower, dinners with $400 bottles of wine, receiving gifts from heads of state including Vladimir Putin and 10% of every broadcast deal in North and Central America form a large chunk of the second episode. Given how much play his story got, Jack Warner, described as the other half of Blazer’s team (Foul! The Secret World Of Fifa, by Andrew Jennings) is conspicuous by his absence. Warner, the former vice-president, has been banned for life by Fifa and is fighting extradition to USA.
But where the documentary scores is getting Blatter to talk. And like Ma Anand Sheela in Wild, Wild Country, Blatter mounts a resolute defence. Of Fifa and of his role as the president. “You can convince everybody of something but you cannot convince yourself of something you are not. So I cannot convince me to say, ‘you are a criminal’ because I am not a criminal,” says Blatter, 85.
His eyes still twinkle, the hands are mobile and Blatter smiles often – it is the best weapon to show your teeth to the opponent, he says – but, like Sheela in the documentary on the godman Rajneesh, he looks shrunk. And it is only partly because Blatter, suspended by Fifa till 2028, is sat in an oversized chair.
Corruption and football predate the 2015 scandal by decades. Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s book Soccernomics talks about money laundering through gate receipts and “bung”, a slang for under-the-table payments to coaches for players in the days before television. The opportunity to make money from football though grew exponentially after the television boom beginning in the 1970s. David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round, a comprehensive history of the game, says sale of television sets grew 20 times in Africa, 10 times in Asia and four times in South America between 1970 and the 1990s.
Fifa declared an income of 150,000 pounds from the 1970 World Cup. It rose to $5.7 billion in the four-year cycle to the 2014 World Cup (Soccernomics) through revenues from television rights and sponsors. That is because everyone wants to watch the World Cup, the product that sustains Fifa, and can do it from home.
“I can confirm that football generates a total of $225 billion worldwide every year,” Joao Havelange, Blatter’s predecessor at Fifa who grew the game’s finances, was quoted as saying by Uruguayan novelist Eduardo Galeano in Football in Sun And Shadow. “Football is a commercial product that must be sold as wisely as possible,” is another quote from Havelange Galenao used.
Little of that has changed under the new dispensation. Infantino expanding the World Cup to 48 teams is out of the Havelange and Blatter playbook. “Just fishing for votes,” was how Tognoni had reacted to the idea in 2016 in an interview to the German media organisation DW. A 2017 report by DW quoted an anonymous insider as saying that 80 people had left Fifa in one year of Infantino’s presidency. In the same year, Hans Joachim Eckert, the chairman of the Fifa ethics committee who suspended Blatter, was sacked. Some people wanted me out, was how Eckert reacted.
Installing a small plastic football pitch in a Fifa boardroom in Zurich was one way of rebooting, Infantino says in the documentary, ending the comment by kicking a ball. But even though the World Cup didn’t move from Russia and Qatar has rejected the bribery charges, where real change has happened is that the executive committee no longer decides on World Cup bids. It is the congress comprising all 211 Fifa members that does. Change is also evident in the US government’s stance. Last August, it okayed a staggered payoff of $200 million recovered during the six-year investigation, albeit with a number of caveats. That suggests it is veering towards accepting the argument Blatter forwarded: “Fifa is not corrupt, people in Fifa were corrupt.”
The 2026 World Cup, the first with 48 teams, will be hosted by USA, Canada and Mexico.