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  May 29, 2015

FIFA Head Reelected Despite Unprecedented Corruption Scandal

Author and scholar Jules Boykoff explores the fallout surrounding the recent FIFA scandal, the withdrawal of Palestine's bid to expel Israel from FIFA, and the human toll of World Cup preparations
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Jules Boykoff is a professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Pacific University in Oregon. He is the author of Activism and the Olympics: Dissent at the Games in Vancouver and London and Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games. His writing on politics and sports has appeared in places like the Guardian, the New York Times, Al Jazeera America, and Dissent Magazine. He is a former professional soccer player who represented the US Olympic Soccer Team in international competition.


JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Football. The world's biggest sport, and also the most corrupt. Despite a massive international bribery scandal that's engulfed the sport, just moments ago FIFA president Sepp Blatter was reelected to an unprecedented fifth term. Fallout continues to grow after nine officials from FIFA, the International Soccer Federation, and several others were arrested as part of a U.S.-led investigation into a $150 million international bribery and corruption scheme. Blatter has maintained that he's innocent from the scandal, and has defied growing calls to step down.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the charges on Wednesday. Meanwhile, also on Friday, Palestine dropped its bid to expel Israel from FIFA for restricting the movement of Palestinian players. And questions are being raised about the role of large financial institutions, that they played in the corruption and bribes.

Now joining us to discuss all this and more from Portland, Oregon is Jules Boykoff. Jules teaches political science at Pacific University in Oregon. A former professional soccer player, he represented the U.S. Olympic soccer team in international competition.

Thank you so much for joining us again.


NOOR: So can you just, for people that--probably having trouble trying to wrap their minds around this growing scandal, and the fact that the FIFA president just was reelected to an unprecedented fifth term.

BOYKOFF: Absolutely. Well, for people who just follow soccer, the beautiful game, they've gotten a rude awakening at how actually there's a real ugly underbelly to the beautiful game. We've been seeing that all week long with these corruption allegations being leveled against FIFA, and this president who, as you said, has just won a fifth term in the presidency. And he's been involved in all sorts of unseemly aspects of the corruption. Though for the time being he seems to have insulated himself enough where they can't exactly press charges quite yet against him.

NOOR: And so this has been a front page story, as you've said, for this whole week. But what is the mainstream media really missing? What is not being discussed in the coverage that we've seen so far?

BOYKOFF: Well, I would say overall in terms of covering the corruption aspect, the illegal corruption that they're uncovering through these indictments, they've done a decent job kind of unraveling it, talking about the laws that are in play, talking about the history of the organization and how this corruption stretches back for decades. There are some things though that I think we could be talking about right now in this moment while the global media spotlight is on FIFA. And that is while we have all these illegal corrupt activities, there's also a whole lot of corruption in FIFA that's quite legal. It's totally legal.

So for example if we look at the Brazil World Cup, just happened last summer in 2014. When the corporations who are sponsors, partners if you will, of FIFA dropped into Brazil across the country they enjoy tax-free status. One Brazilian think tank calculated that to be about $250 million free dollars that they got just at the Brazil World Cup alone. And so if you compare that $250 million of tax breaks that these companies got--who are doing just fine, these companies, by the way. We're talking about McDonald's, Coca-Cola, Visa and whatnot.

Compare that $250 million to the $150 million of corruptions that have been alleged in this case. Spicy as they may be, the sort of everyday quotidian corruption that's embedded in FIFA we also need to talk about as well. Because if we're going to move and change FIFA going forward, we need to think about those legalized systems of exploitation, those legalized systems of expropriation that are dominant when you think about the World Cup.

NOOR: And can you also talk about, for example, the World Cup happening in FIFA and the fact that it's happening in, I believe, 2022. it's happening in Qatar, excuse me. What are the implications of that? And talk about the human rights abuses that have been exposed during this process.

BOYKOFF: Absolutely. Well, the guy who's secretary general of FIFA, his name is Jérôme Valcke, he said things very straight not too long ago. He said, sometimes less democracy is a good thing for running a World Cup. And so then you think about, well, it's moving to Russia, it's moving to Qatar, where they don't have to think about pesky, democratic interventions on the part of everyday citizens who might not be happy with spending and that sort of thing.

Now, Qatar is a clown show. Let's put it just straight here for you. There's been excellent reporting, investigative reporting, from The Guardian and elsewhere about what's called the kafala system of labor. Essentially Qataris go around the world, they find people to come to Qatar to do manual labor. They've been pulling many people from Nepal. And they bring them illegally to Qatar, and essentially without papers they become indentured servants. The Guardian called this a modern-day form of slavery. I think they got it exactly right.

So what's happened with Qatar, they've been using these laborers to build their stadiums. They've been dying at a rate of every other day. I want to say that again, because it's incredible. The Nepali and other immigrant workers have been dying at a rate of every other day during 2014 according to Guardian research. And what we've seen with reform on the part of the Qataris is that they've limited this kafala system I've described to five years instead of forever. So in a weird way, all this attention has only served to entrench the system of kafala, and that's a real problem here.

These World Cups, for Qatar in 2022 and Russia in 2018, were voted on at the same time back in 2012, and there seems to be all sorts of vote swapping, possible corruption with that as well. And we need to remember that these indictments that just came down out of New York, they have nothing really to do yet with 2018 and 2022. they focus on the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and they also focus on people that are in the region. It's called the CONCACAF region, that's the Confederation of Football Associations from North America, Central America, and from the Caribbean. So it's very limited, the scope of these indictments, although it appears from the Attorney General that she would like to aim a little bit higher up the food chain and perhaps even go after Blatter himself.

I mean, Blatter--reports have said that Blatter's very hesitant to come to North America. Very hesitant to come to the United States. And some people have speculated he might not even be bothered to go to Canada for the Women's World Cup that's coming up. So he's very aware that he's in the crosshairs, if you will, of the Attorney General of the United States.

NOOR: And you've just written about the Women's World Cup, because it's a significant event. But it's now happening under the shadow of this huge corruption scandal.

BOYKOFF: That's right. Dave Zirin, the sports writer from The Nation magazine, and I just wrote a piece that went up today. We talk about exactly that, how all this corruption has overshadowed what's going to be a wonderful, terrific, fun-to-watch World Cup. That starts on June 6th, it's coming right around the corner. So instead of talking about the amazing athletes, instead of talking about some of the controversy swirling around that World Cup in regards to the use of artificial turf and whatnot, instead we're talking about the FIFA allegations.

Now, I think we could talk about both things. But right now if you look at media coverage, the Women's World Cup is being swept under the rug. If you look at the history of FIFA in regards to women's soccer, it's abominable. In particular, Sepp Blatter has been miserable on the topic. Blatter in 2004 said, when asked how to get women's soccer more popular in the United States, he suggested that they wear shorter shorts. He seriously said that. Ten years later he was at the 2012 Women's World Cup, World Player of the Year awards, where he apparently didn't even recognize Alex Morgan. She's a huge superstar on the U.S. national team. Utterly recognizable. She's one of the three people up for the award. You'd think Blatter might be able to recognize her. There's also the case of Abby Wambach, another superstar from the United States team. She was up for the award a following year. She was backstage with her wife Sarah Huffman and Blatter ambled up to them and talked to Sarah Huffman saying, hey, Marta--who's a superstar player from Brazil--how are you doing, you're wonderful, you're wonderful, et cetera. Not even knowing that it wasn't Marta, and they really don't look that similar.

So there's been insults, but there's also been monomaniacal brand micromanagement on the part of FIFA. A Swedish television company who has rights to the Women's World Cup, they wanted to move toward equality and not call it the Women's World Cup, but instead simply call it the World Cup. But FIFA's phalanx of lawyers went after them and said if you do that, you could well be in breach of contract. So that's an ongoing situation there.

FIFA has been terrible when it comes to the Women's World Cup, and they've just been one sexist episode after another. It's been a misogyny-o-rama.

NOOR: And I wanted to ask you about Palestine's bid to get Israel expelled from FIFA for its actions restricting the movement of Palestinian players in the occupied territories. What's the latest on that, and can you give us a little background on that?

BOYKOFF: Sure. Well, we've seen in previous history around both the World Cup and the Olympics when countries who want to bring claims to the wider public use sports bodies like the International Olympic Committee and FIFA to level their grievances and get more attention to them. For example, with the Olympic movement, we saw the suspension of South Africa for many years while they had apartheid. South Africa was also suspended from FIFA, as was Yugoslavia for a short period as well. So it's not unprecedented for people to push their claims through these sport organizations.

Now, in regards to the Palestinian situation with the Israelis in this instance, the Palestinians had wanted to get free passage for their soccer players and for others involved in soccer from Gaza to the West Bank. And they were having trouble getting through, and so they wanted to sort of smooth out the passage for these players and medical professionals.

NOOR: And to be clear, to be clear, it's not just the players. For anyone in Gaza or the West Bank it's very difficult, if possible at all, to get in between, to travel in between the two.


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