Fi-Fa-Fo-Fum I smell the blood of an Englishman

All’s fair in love and war, but rarely on a football pitch (from what the managers say), and definitely not when it comes to the power politics of the international game. We English may have invented the game (or at least codified it) and have the most popular league in the world, but we are apparently isolated within FIFA.

As I have followed the news of the various recent shenanigans at FIFA, I have been struck by the many uncomfortable parallels with the diplomatic games that go on in the development arena. The English FA may have stood by strong principles, but that counts for little in this game, and they displayed all the diplomatic finesse of a development newbie.

I feel for them, but any development veteran would have told you that fine principles only count with the great unwashed masses. FA’s audience at FIFA were not ordinary football fans – who almost certainly would not have voted for a World Cup in Qatar! – but fellow power brokers, for whom principles are like choosing which tie to wear in the morning; you pick the one that best suits your needs today. Indeed let’s just look at the roll call of the countries that lined up to denounce the FA’s call for the delay to elections: DRC, Haiti, Benin, Fiji and Cyprus, exemplars, one and all, of the highest possible standards of probity, I’m sure. More to the point, they and many others all know which side their bread is buttered on, and many will be sitting atop their own little pyramids of patronage such that they depend on a continued supply of goodies to maintain their own position. Standing by principles won’t get you very far with them.

Any rate, as with multinational development institutions, the British have some anachronistic and frankly indefensible privileges. FIFA should no more automatically have a British vice-president than the Managing Director of the IMF should have to be a European. In Britain we love nothing more than to mock a privileged public school boy, and yet internationally we hang on to every privilege we can get. It’s not terribly surprising that we get labelled arrogant. Refusing to do any deals can come across as quite insufferable even if it is all done with the best intentions, and the ghosts of colonialism can take a long time to die.

I have some words of comfort for the FA, though: just because you may be arrogant or suffering a bad case of sour grapes, does not mean you are not right. When people make such non-arguments as: “We are ill at ease with people who wield unfounded accusations – he who accuses must provide evidence,” or “FIFA belongs to 208 national associations and not to one association, we must not seek solutions through the media or a Parliament in any third country,” then you know that the only thing they object to is the threatened interruption to their cosy status quo. One regularly hears similar non-arguments from grossly overpaid parliamentarians in Kenya, or indeed from Paul Kagame; their only premise is that they have some spurious reason for objecting to you making the argument, but no actual counter-argument. It’s a cheap trick and I know just how immensely frustrating it can be trying to engage with people whose only goal is to deny you the standing to speak in the first place. It’s like, in the West, being accused of racism; even though the accusation may have not a shred of truth it cuts so deeply that one struggles to defend oneself of it.

And whilst on the face of it, there may be a lot of blustering self-righteousness, the reason that they are objecting to your apparent recourse to the court of public opinion rather than following the ‘proper channels’ is that it is exactly precisely that court that they fear. They fear the great unwashed masses. They also fear the paymasters – the donors in the development space, FIFA’s sponsors in the football space – who are also listening to that court. Just as no donor likes to pull out entirely from a country it has supported strongly – the dilemma currently faced by DFID in Malawi – sponsors won’t be in a hurry to walk away from a brand as magnetic as the footie World Cup, but they will be exerting plenty of behind the scenes pressure. And like so many dodgy dictators, Blatter, I suspect, craves respectability; travel bans / evaporating dinner invitations can be more powerful than you might imagine; the social slight is not to be under-estimated!

Of course, I know nothing about the real ins and outs of football diplomacy, but from afar the landscape does appear to have a very familiar tinge. Perhaps the FA’s top echelons could do with a poverty immersion? Conversely, anyone contemplating a career in conservation or development should consider for a moment whether they’re ready for this kind of thing. It can be an ugly place down at the coal face.

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