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FIFA's controversial roots date back to England five decades ago


Brazilian journalists who flew to London for the Champions League final were struck by the importance given in the English press to the recent scandals surrounding FIFA. The story is not playing anything like as big back home.

European cynics might argue that this has something to do with a certain South American tolerance of corruption. South American cynics, meanwhile, put the whole frenzy down to an infantile English reaction at not being awarded the 2018 World Cup.

But the fault line goes deeper. A few months ago in Rio I saw Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez give a lecture to Brazilian coaches. The theme was on his team's recent rise and their progress to the semifinals of last year's World Cup. Tabarez, though, in addition to being a man of soccer is an academic, a teacher by trade (nicknamed "El Maestro" for this very reason), and he could not resist some historical context.

He stopped off briefly at the 1966 World Cup, held in England while FIFA was presided by an Englishman, Stanley Rous. That tournament, he said, had been a conspiracy against the South American teams.

The great Pele was brutally kicked out of the tournament by European teams while European referees did nothing. Strikingly, all but seven of the 32 matches had European referees, and the Portugal-North Korea quarterfinal was the only knockout game with an official from outside the continent. Famously, the Germany-Uruguay quarterfinal had an English referee, while the England-Argentina match had a German -- both were controversial, and South American involvement in the competition ended before the semifinals.

Tabarez is certainly no demagogue, no flaming-eyed nationalist. But he believes that the tournament was set up to exclude the South Americans.

He may well have extended his complaint, and noted that the competition was a conspiracy against the world outside Europe. There was just one place reserved for Asia and Africa combined. The bulk of the African nations pulled out in protest, their complaints given extra fuel by the support Rous offered to apartheid South Africa. The wind of change was blowing in Africa, but it could not dislodge the cobwebs in the mind of Rous, who was floundering badly in post-colonial politics he seemed unable to understand.

At the end of World War II, more than half of FIFA's membership came from Europe. By 1974 the old continent accounted for less than a third. FIFA had not changed with the times -- until in that year Brazil's Joao Havelange unseated Rous and kick-started the globalization of the game.

The World Cup was increased, first to 24 and then to 32 nations, with more slots for the developing world. Youth tournaments were set up -- new World Cups at Under-20 and Under-17 levels -- that could be staged in the developing world. This could be bankrolled by massive global sponsors, keen to reach soccer's worldwide audience, and also by the commercialization of TV rights.

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Some, present writer included, might be concerned at the excesses of this process of commercialization. But it is hardly something that English soccer, with all its financial development, can criticize with a straight face. Moreover, whatever we might think of some of the people involved in the process, it is undeniable that the project of taking the game to the world has been a success. Forty years ago it was inconceivable that the likes of South Korea or Ecuador could shine in a World Cup -- now both countries each have a very fine player wearing the shirt of Manchester United.

The extraordinary global popularity of soccer means that the game now generates huge sums -- and the poisoned fruit of the money tree is the corruption that seems to take place.

The English press are now going after these stories, which can only be a good thing. Journalism is at its most useful when it is making those in power uncomfortable.

I find it hard to agree, though, with the context in which the revelations are usually placed. The scenario is almost Biblical -- everything was fine in the garden of football until our Stanley lost out to Havelange, who then passed the baton to Blatter.

The English attack dogs don't give the Rous era the same treatment. In "Foul," his book of fine investigative journalism on FIFA, Andrew Jennings tries to brush off the pro-apartheid stance of Rous as steering "the sporting ship well clear of murky political waters." His successors are cut no such slack.

Jennings castigates Havelange for his close relations with the Argentine military junta before and during the 1978 World Cup. But there is no mention of an incident five years earlier that must stand as one of the most despicable in FIFA's history. In November 1973, Rous ordered that the World Cup playoff between Chile and the Soviet Union could go ahead in Santiago's Nacional stadium. The Pinochet coup had taken place two months before, after which the stadium was used as a concentration camp.

Hundreds were killed there, thousands were tortured. In order to stage the game against the Soviets, the remaining prisoners were transferred or released and the bloodstains hurriedly cleaned up. Quite rightly, the Soviets refused to play there. Rous threw them out of the World Cup.

The game could easily have been staged in Uruguay. By taking such a monstrous decision, Rous forfeited any right to the moral high ground. Financial corruption is not the only crime.

There was no pre-Havelange and Blatter garden of Eden -- just a different FIFA with different defects. With its lack of historical context it is unclear whether the current hysteria in the English press is motivated by a genuine desire to carry the game forward on a global basis -- or by nostalgia for when English rule was unchallenged.

The lack of accountability of the current FIFA is surely unsustainable, the quasi-feudal personal fiefdoms that develop inside the organization are disturbing and the fat-cat lifestyle of some of those at the top makes the stomach turn. But for all its flaws and problems, it is not hard to understand why much of the developing world prefers the post-Havelange FIFA to what came before.