ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - MAY 14: David Beckham, England 2018 Vice President hands England's Bid book to Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA during the 2018/2022 World Cup Bid Book Handover ceremony at FIFA Headquarters on May 14, 2010 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)
News that officials from Nigeria and Oceania are willing to sell World Cup votes confirms what many have long suspected, but rather than lead to an examination of an inherently flawed process, The Sunday Times' reporting is set to reinforce a preference for only certain types of manipulation when choosing World Cup hosts.
News about The Times' sting started trickling out Saturday. Summarizing stories hit the internet shortly after the of English Premier League action, copy serving as adverts for The Times' Sunday edition. If the story turns out to be true, they deserve the hype, having undergone the kind of investigative reporting that's usually confined to the political realm; though, if we're talking about FIFA, the line between sport and politics may as well be depicted on an Etch-N-Sketch.
While these kind of exchanges have long been the subject of urban legend, The Times' sting takes the stories from legend to verifiable. As I've followed this sport, people have speculated about sold votes leading to surprise results. Thus, the first question that came to my hind upon reading the BBC's synopsis was "Why now?" Why didn't this investigation happen in the print media's heyday, when organizations had more resources to throw at investigative journalism? After a few hours' thought, two reasons came to mind:
- First, perhaps these affairs have been brought to light by the enhanced media scrutiny corresponding to England's involvement. The Times may have conducted similar, unyielding investigations into previous World Cup bids. They may have also developed an unprecedented interest thanks to England's viability. Regardless, previous cycles may have lacked a new organization with the impetus to report the fraud.
- Second, perhaps with the 2018 World Cup coming down to four European bids, some representatives have so little preference that they are willing to sell their bids. When a World Cup is going to Africa for the first time (as opposed to Europe for the 11th), a wider variety of officials may see their vote as significant. For the upcoming decision, "who cares" may be a prevailing attitude from those farthest removed from Europe.
Regardless, The Times seems ready to end any questions as to whether votes are sold.
Amongst those who follow such things closely, the concept of vote selling has been a given. Thus, today's news was less surprising than discouraging. While the Times' investigation will make it more difficult to sell votes going forward, I always get downtrodden when I see the detractors' most sensational pejorative displayed in 42-point font. I suppose that's me playing the overprotective, easily discouraged North American, the Yank that wants to yell, "No! This really doesn't happen that often!
"Feel free to come out of your gridiron-insulated bubble. The sport itself is still great."
Today's allegations highlight the worst kind of corruption. The indomitable strength of the pocketbook has resurfaced, but given the problematic nature of FIFA's bidding process, there will always be fraud. As FIFA officials fly around the world to inspect facilities and talk to those on the ground, they are solicited and cajoled by people who have the huge financial incentives to bring the World Cup to their country. Gift bags are given out in the open and, as we were reminded today, brown paper bags are exchanged in private. FIFA could do more to insulate the Sepp Blatters and Harold Mayne-Nicholls's of the world, but the payments would merely move one level out in the sphere of influence, to the information providers rather than information gatherers. You could have a system where all parties meet for one day in Zurich and present to a previously anonymous panel of decision makers, but then millions would be spent trying to convince the janitors at FIFA headquarters to point their recently gifted iPhone cameras at FIFA's files. The nature of society tells us that if something's popular enough to be important, than its important enough to corrupted.
Payments are only one way of manipulating a process that, at its core, is supposed to be about deciding which country's bid is the strongest, though the importance of bid strength has waned in recent votes. At least, if you equate a bid's at-the-time ability to put on the tournament with strength, bid strength is approaching relative irrelevance. By that measure South Africa's bid was not the strongest, while Brazil's infrastructure troubles have already allowed editors to recycle the themes used in 2007 to cover South Africa's preparations. So how did those countries win their bids? Sentiment, perhaps. Making history. Observing history. Perhaps something intangible, but politics was undoubtedly a factor. Horse trading is what we call it in the States - the bargaining and exchange needed to push your agenda through the bureaucracy.
With South Africa able to pull-off a great event, many pre-tournament worries about horse trading and preparedness now seem overblown. Still, our sense of fairness demands honest effort be rewarded with honest process, which is why we're up-in-arms when an official takes money for their vote or two countries appear to be reaching a tacit accordance to drop their competing bids in exchange for supporting the other's alternative.
No. Wait. We forgot to scrutinize that last scenario, didn't we?
Perhaps that's because comparing bribery to mere politics may be a reach, though there seems to be either a bias of culture or proximity that's influencing our view. When you consider the implications of each scenario, is there much difference? If a Nigeria or Oceania vote is obtained through explicit payments while an England or United States vote is obtained through an exchange of favors, votes are still exchanged, and while the second scenario is still the subject of conjecture (urban legend), as we discovered today, urban legends on this topic can be rooted in fact. Maybe it's because explicitly asking for money lacks the cleverness of vote trading coordination, but we seem more appalled by the less covert manipulation. That's just not how things are done, from our point of view, though that point of view may be the cause of this inconsistency. Loopholes are condoned while outright rule breaking is abhorred, despite each corrupting the process's true purpose.
Though the report in The Sunday Times will lead to a fervor of ironic indignation, we should remember that horse trading takes many forms, even if we care about some horses more than others.