No World Cup is complete without a crackling good conspiracy theory. Four years ago, Brazilian fans complained that their team lost the championship because of a sneaker company. Nike, they alleged, forced star forward Ronaldo to play in the final, even though he had suffered convulsions a few hours earlier. Then there’s my favorite murky incident: the 1978 semifinal, when Argentina trounced a Peruvian team that inexplicably started four inexperienced reserves. Just as inexplicably, following its lopsided defeat, Peru received 35,000 tons of Argentine grain as a “humanitarian” gift.
For many years, the world will talk about the scandal of 2002—the atrocious refereeing that resulted in the ousting of favorites Spain and Italy and a string of improbable South Korean victories. According to this flourishing theory, the international soccer federation (FIFA) rigged the tournament to benefit Korea, the host nation, and enhance soccer’s popularity in the lucrative Asian market. To ensure Korean wins, FIFA gave them inexperienced referees from soccer minnows like Ecuador and Trinidad, susceptible to the pressure of the loud Korean crowds. Argentina’s La Nacion has asserted, “The World Cup should be declared null and void.” Italian and Spanish television have threatened to sue FIFA, contending that the skewed refereeing has cost them millions.
Anyone who has watched the last rounds of the World Cup knows that these scandalmongers have a point. There’s been a barge-full of lousy calls and unjust penalties. But the conspiracy theorists have completely misdiagnosed the crisis. The problem isn’t Korean favoritism: it’s international soccer itself, and its amazingly amoral president, Sepp Blatter. To expand his tenuous political base, Blatter has curried favor with all the small countries that comprise FIFA by showcasing their referees in important matches. His ambition has forced referees from Maldives and Benin onto the big stage, out of their depths, ruining good teams and the tournament. Unfortunately, it’s not the first time he has sacrificed the sport for his own gain.
The story of Blatter’s malfeasance begins with his rise. A former Swiss army colonel, he started as a consigliere to the Dassler family, the Adidas moguls. Despite his connections, however, nobody ever expected him to become president of FIFA—an office elected by the heads of the various national soccer federations. Indeed, Blatter only triumphed after a bit of help from the emir of Qatar, who lent him a jet so that he could canvass the globe and stump for votes. (According to the London Daily Mail, Muammar Qaddafi sponsored another whistle-stop tour.) The DailyMail also uncovered millions in donations from other Arabian princes, which he lavished on even more FIFA voters. A Somali soccer official testified that Blatter supporters offered him $100,000 and handed other African soccer officials brown envelopes stuffed with cash. Blatter’s defense is that he merely doled out cash advances to aid poor countries.
Blatter’s presidency has followed the venal course of his campaign. When it came time to sell TV rights to this year’s World Cup, he rejected the top bids in favor of the Dassler family company, ISL. A few months later, ISL went belly-up, costing FIFA millions. Meanwhile, Blatter ran up a huge FIFA debt by wining and dining his allies, sending soccer bureaucrats from places like the Solomon Islands on expensive junkets to Zurich and Tokyo. To show the cleanliness of his books, he hired the consulting firm McKinsey to audit FIFA, but they didn’t dig up any dirt. By the way, the head of the McKinsey team, Philippe Blatter, is Sepp’s nephew and godson. Although sports bureaucrats, especially European ones, have a remarkably high tolerance for corruption, five FIFA vice presidents have demanded Blatter’s resignation.
That’s why Blatter installed referees from small federations. In FIFA, each member country’s vote is equal. So the Cook Islands hold as much power as Brazil or Germany. While Blatter alienates the world’s soccer giants, he stays in power by ingratiating himself with its weaklings. He gives these small countries perks, like the prestige of having their referees officiate big games. This World Cup included assistant referees from Vanuatu, Antigua, and Benin. Meanwhile, Spain and Italy, who have the two highest-quality leagues in the world, have no assistants working the tournament.
And thanks in large part to the flubs of these “village referees” (in the words of Italian striker Christian Vieri), the tournament’s credibility has been ruined. Ecuador’s Byron Moreno ejected the Italian striker Francesco Totti for faking a fall, even though he’d been clearly tripped. In the quarterfinals against Korea, Spain had two clear goals yanked away by officials from Trinidad and Egypt. Always cynical, Blatter has pulled a classic sleight of hand, calling for an investigation, and decried their refereeing as a “disaster.” He should know a disaster when he sees one.