Is Sepp Blatter, the 79-year-old former president of FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association), a hero or a thug? If last week’s indictments and swift arrests of half the FIFA bureaucrats – issued by the U.S. Department of Justice – is considered one of America’s many unwelcome interferences in international affairs, then some people will no doubt consider Blatter to be a martyr and a hero who managed to keep world soccer out of American claws for decades. After all, kicking the ball was no doubt Europe’s domain from the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, while U.S. soccer’s biggest achievement so far was the elimination of the Slovenian team during the interesting 2010 World Cup in South Africa. And when it comes to the old geopolitics of soccer in 2010, even Slovenia, compared to the U.S., was a superpower.
But this was bound to change the moment American sports entrepreneurs decided to start investing in soccer. The awareness that soccer could offer real business possibilities came with the purchase of of European clubs like Manchester United and, most recently, Italian AS Roma. The business model of this takeover is always the same: modern management, building a club’s own modern stadium with efficient and more profitable facilities. The big, Maracana-style stadiums that can receive 100,000 or more fans are now obsolete. Modern structures for a maximum of 60,000 fans, with special galleries and restaurants, are providing a bigger profit, while tv networks can guarantee an audience of millions. The final goal of this business model for the new age soccer clubs get on the stock market. Once American business tested their own business model in the world of European soccer, the decision became obvious.
Now things are starting to move faster. First, the United States wanted to have a more competitive national championship. But without a stronger position within FIFA, the United States Soccer Federation – which competes in CONCACAF – could not get enough visibility on the world soccer market. And with Blatter’s convoluted and corrupt politics, the forthcoming changes were necessary. I’d even venture to say that when it comes to FIFA, the United States has actually done Europe a favor. FIFA, whose only purpose is to organize the World Cup, has outgrown its mandate and blocked many initiatives for innovations coming from sister organisations like UEFA. When Sepp Blatter came under pressure last week, he mentioned much needed reforms. With the ego of an untouchable dictator, Blatter even proposed to lead the process of reform. With more and more revelations and inquiries coming out of the woodwork, I tend to believe that the best solution for the problem would be its dismantling, as Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight proposed in a debate this past week. And I am convinced that the interpretation of Bladder’s downfall as being equivalent to American intervention in Ukraine is exaggerated and premature. One only has to read Richard Farley’s funny biography of Blatter to realize what kind of person the former FIFA boss was, and to consider that perhaps this time an external intervention was necessary.