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Review: David Conn's The Fall of the House of FIFA is a colourful and cautionary tale

British comedian known as Lee Nelson (unseen) throws banknotes at FIFA president Sepp Blatter as he arrives for a news conference in 2015. Blatter was the only only major FIFA administrator who was willing to be interviewed by David Conn on his book about corruption in FIFA.

ARND WIEGMANN/REUTERS

Title
The Fall of the House of FIFA
Author
David Conn
Publisher
Yellow Jersey Press
Pages
320
Price
$35.99

"The defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed … undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA." Those are the words of James Comey, former director of the FBI. The man eventually fired by U.S. President Donald Trump had, in his career, succinctly nailed the problem at the governing body of world soccer. But Comey only makes a fleeting appearance in this book. The story is truly one of vast international intrigue.

Author David Conn is always called "proper journalist David Conn" by his colleagues in the waggish and often astute online soccer coverage in The Guardian. That's because he is an experienced investigative reporter, not a dryly funny and acerbic commentator, as most Guardian soccer writers are.

Some dry wit might well have made The Fall of the House of FIFA a lighter read. It is dense, detailed and, frankly, alarming. We all know by now that the Fédération Internationale de Football Association was for years a deeply corrupt organization running world soccer. Charges have been laid, and persons fired or banned from the game. There are even photos to be found online of money in brown envelopes that was used to sway the loyalty of soccer's administrators. But why did it go wrong? Where did it start? Those are the questions Conn sets out to answer in one long and sometimes soul-destroying narrative of what happened.

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His opening chapter is a beautiful piece of writing, one that sets out why every soccer fan and player should be angry. Conn recalls watching the 1974 World Cup, hosted by West Germany, on TV as a boy in Manchester, England. Soccer was all around him, taken for granted. It was played in the streets, schoolyards and the great stadiums of local clubs. There wasn't much of the game on TV in those days and, as he says, the World Cup had a profound impact, connecting the local to the worldwide game: "We were graced by being part of something much bigger than we had imagined, greater than ourselves."

What Conn describes as "the simple beauty" of the game was on full display at that World Cup. Playing for the Netherlands, Johan Cruyff had the balletic skill of a gazelle. For West Germany, Franz Beckenbauer redefined the role of the midfield sweeper. Those were heady days of flowing, entrancing soccer. Looking back, Conn also recalls that the boy in Manchester noted that almost all the players wore Adidas shoes and shirts. The glamour of the three stripes of Adidas had impact, as it was meant to.

The year 1974 is where Conn places the turning point for FIFA. For 13 years, its president had been an Englishman, Sir Stanley Rous. It was a stable, growing and transparent organization that had shown remarkable political agility and skill in organizing World Cup tournaments. Rous stood for re-election in 1974 but was beaten by the Brazilian Joao Havelange, a businessman who saw the potential for vast wealth being accrued to FIFA through sponsorships and partnerships and TV rights. He also won on the reasonable platform that soccer's non-European countries had been ignored or sidelined by a handful of bureaucrats in Europe. Havelange won the presidency by corralling the votes of many small countries and promising them some of the riches that FIFA would accumulate. There and then, the pattern of corruption started. Money would be sprayed throughout the hundreds of member organizations and if it went to the pockets of greedy individuals rather than official bodies planning to build stadiums and train kids, hardly anyone would know.

Conn is careful to point out that in the period since 1974 FIFA did actually perform some truly benign acts. When Sepp Blatter was elected president in 1998, he had accumulated votes from many tiny member countries of FIFA by promising development money. And he delivered. There are stadiums, training fields and development programs for boys and girls in African countries that have changed lives for the better and made some African countries soccer powerhouses. Soccer has had a hugely positive impact in some beleaguered nations. Little wonder that Blatter, at one time, expected to get the Nobel Peace Prize.

But Blatter also nourished a culture of greed and turned a blind eye to excess. Of all the strange and colourful characters in Conn's book, he is the only major FIFA administrator who was willing to be interviewed for it. Although considered a disgraced figure, he remains bewildered by what happened to him. Or so he says.

What happened, specifically, is that Mohamed bin Hammam, a Qatari construction mogul and long-time member of FIFA's most powerful committees, wanted to succeed Blatter as president. In 2011, he went to Trinidad to attempt to bribe 25 Caribbean Football Union officials with $40,000 (U.S.) each, in unmarked envelopes. The money was distributed to them by Jack Warner, then a member of FIFA's executive committee and head of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). Mohamed bin Hammam wanted their votes for his presidential run.

The act was so brazen, some of the intended recipients balked and talked about it. Sitting in New York, in one of several Trump Tower apartments paid for by CONCACAF, its general secretary, Chuck Blazer, was alarmed. Blazer, a burly, obese man, knew that the sort of bribery that had made him rich was now too public. And that's where the FBI entered the picture. Blazer and others had been accumulating bribes and dubious fees, usually in cash, and were not paying income tax. Not long after, Blazer was wearing a wire for the FBI.

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The house of cards that was FIFA cronyism started to come apart. In Britain, politicians wanted to know why millions had been spent on a failed bid to have England host the 2018 World Cup. Australia wanted to know why $43-million of government money had been spent on a campaign to host a World Cup and the bid received only one vote in support from members of FIFA's executive committee. That vote, as Conn points out, likely came from Beckenbauer. Which takes the story back to 1974, when Conn was enthralled by the World Cup on TV. As for those World Cup bids, the winners were Russia and Qatar.

The book is at times so detailed in its expose of bribery and corruption that the reader feels overwhelmed. And yet it amounts to a colourful, cautionary tale about excess, about what Conn calls "the whole shameless, excessive, different planet these football chiefs inhabited and helped themselves to, from exploiting the people's game." The people's game itself is not indicted in this book, only those who administered it. That is the only part of the story that isn't alarming.

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's TV critic and author of The World Is a Ball: The Joy, Madness and Meaning of Soccer.

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