Unlike some fair-weather fans I maintain a fairly constant interest in the workings of FIFA. Not because I especially care for association football, but because I consider myself something of a connoisseur of corruption. I do not spend all my time studying the matter, but I do take an interest in corrupt people and entities. They form a sort of hall of fame in part of my head.
Top of my list is probably Abdalá Bucaram. For anyone who failed to follow Ecuadorian politics in the 1990s, that is the period when Bucaram was elected to office in his country. Known as “El Loco” (“The madman”), the president had a colorful period in power. Among other things, he released a pop single trying to adopt his nickname in a positive light (“The madman who loves”). But he was best known for his fantastical corruption. So corrupt was Bucaram that when the Ecuadorian parliament voted to impeach him, he was caught trying to bribe officials to vote that he wasn’t corrupt. Shortly afterwards he was seen clambering on to a private jet to Panama with what one witness described as baskets full of cash.
Outside South America, you really have to go to international sporting organizations for corruption of this calibre. So it is that very near to Bucaram in my personal pantheon sits Chuck Blazer. You may remember him from a few years back as one of the FIFA officials who was proved to have received bribes to arrange for the World Cup to go to any country that could line his voluminous pockets. For Mr. Blazer was a big man. Indeed so morbidly obese was he that he had to move around in a mobility scooter. He had two apartments in Trump Tower, one of which was set aside for his cats. When the Feds came knocking, Mr. Blazer was on the way to his favorite restaurant on his mobility scooter. And so the Feds caught the FIFA official fairly easily on Fifth Avenue in perhaps the lowest-speed chase in NYPD history.
The now sadly late Mr. Blazer is memorable for many reasons. But chief among them is that only at an organization as corrupt as FIFA could a man so obese that he needs a mobility scooter represent a sporting organization. Which brings me to Gianni Infantino, the current head of the body.
Everybody in the world knows why the World Cup is taking place in Qatar. It is because the Qataris are very rich and bribed FIFA officials to have the competition in their inappropriately climated statelet. Many people have lamented this, but I think the whole thing has paid off. Rather than covering over the lamentable aspects of Qatari society, the World Cup has highlighted them — as it has also highlighted a range of people who are willing to say almost anything so long as they get to trouser a lot of cash.
Chief among them is Infantino himself. He could have just come out and said: “Money speaks — indeed it sings.” Instead he tried to respond to the very modern criticisms of Qatar in a very modern way. Since various people had highlighted the state of gay rights, migrant workers and suchlike in Qatar, Infantino clearly felt he had to say something ahead of the tournament. And so he gave a speech which I think will go down in history as one of those moments when our era almost stopped pretending.
In a rambling monologue with leaden pauses, he told 400 journalists: “Today I feel very strong feelings. Today I feel like a Qatari. Today I feel like an Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel like a migrant worker.” He left out whether or not he felt like a woman and when someone asked why, he immediately confirmed that he did indeed also feel like a woman.
The speech induced strong feelings in turn. When he got to the bit about feeling gay, I suddenly had an overwhelming desire for someone to put him to the test right there on stage. Mr. Infantino is not my type, for although I do not wish to play the man and not the ball, he too closely resembles the brother chained to the wall in The Goonies to quite do it for me.
Nevertheless, the minute he came to that clause I did have a sudden wish that the nearest gay should run on stage, whip down their trousers and take him at his word. My next wish was for a migrant worker to make Mr. Infantino construct a stadium for almost no fee except board and cramped lodgings. When he fell from the top of that structure we might then toss his body into an unmarked grave. Then, and only then, would I believe he meant it. My point is that the FIFA president’s attempt at an “out” was typically, gloriously, world-beatingly insincere.
He made one other effort at playing defense, which also failed to warm him to me. This was his claim that western criticism of Qatar is “pure hypocrisy.” Infantino said: “I think what we Europeans have done worldwide for the past 3,000 years, we should be apologizing for the next 3,000 years before giving moral advice to others.” I assume that he means that we Europeans should apologize for everything going back to the Ancient Greeks?
Well, thanks for the offer, Gianni, but personally I love the Ancient Greeks. And in any case, I’m done apologizing. Not another day. Certainly not another 3,000 years. But if that’s your best “out” for trousering a pile of cash, then fine, game on.
Like I said, at moments such as this, one begins to see the end of the tunnel. The beginning of the end of the era in which people kept pretending to believe the crap they have pretended to believe of late. At such moments we can all see that other realities are truly at play.
I hope that people who like soccer enjoy the World Cup. And those of us who enjoy observing world-class corruption can be allowed to enjoy our sport also being played out at the highest international level.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.