Leander Schaerlaeckens: The beautiful game is losing its shine

Many recent news items have cast the sport in a less-than-favorable light.
Word of the latest scandal came last Wednesday. Joao Havelange took $1 million in kickbacks from FIFA’s now-defunct marketing partner ISL in 1997 alone, while he was the governing body’s president. His son-in-law and longtime but since-deposed grand poobah of Brazilian soccer, Ricardo Teixeira, also a member of FIFA’s exclusive Executive Committee, took some $13 million from the same company from 1992 through 1997.

In spite of repaying about $6 million to the Swiss government to end the probe and keep their identities secret, the prosecutor’s investigation was unsealed and the secret was let out. There is corruption in the upper echelons of FIFA – some secret. Oh, and a third executive committee member, Paraguay’s Nicolas Leoz, had taken money too. A mere $130,000 over two payments in 2000.

Havelange is, as of this writing, still FIFA’s honorary president. He is a mentor of current president Sepp Blatter, after all. The Swiss prosecutor found that Blatter had known about these transgressions for many years. Yet the pint-sized president led a standing ovation for Havelange just last May, at a FIFA congress, and maintained that he wasn’t in the wrong since he’d not actually broken any Swiss laws.

Then on Sunday, in another not-so-graceful turnabout, he said Havelange “has to go”. The head of the German soccer league, Reinhard Rauball, had called for Blatter’s head too. So, in a bind, Blatter did what he so often seems to, he threw a close associate under the bus to save his own hide. And while he was at it, he added that he might yet run for a fifth term in 2015, in spite of promising the current one would be his last if only the member federations would vote for him one last time. The monster ball will carry on.

Last Wednesday, too, came a revelation from a former Premier League captain, Claus Lundekvam, who spent 1996 through 2008 with Southampton. In an interview with a Norwegian media outlet, he happily detailed how he and many of his peers fixed certain aspects of games and cleaned up on bets. In concert with opposing captains, they would pre-determine who would kick off, get the first corner, penalty, throw-in or booking and lay bets accordingly.


These events came on the back of a Euro that offered much by way of attractive play but was marred by incidents of racism, homophobic utterances and an ugly skirmish between nationalistic Russians and Poles.

And they come in the midst of a transfer window in which the players’ pursuit of the top dollar has become more overt and unapologetic than ever before. They nakedly scrap for shrinking salary budgets, nudged along by emboldened and increasingly self-serving agents.

Connected, these dots, these many stains on the sport, draw a stark picture. The beautiful game is losing its shine.

Below the beautiful veneer, the first-rate production values and shiny jerseys, the game has never been pure. Far from it. But with the cracks in its dignity and credibility and morality so plainly visible, the product of professional football doesn’t beckon the consumer from the shelf. With the ugliness running rampant, the tolerance of the fan is being tested. Make it too abundantly clear that it’s all a sham, that the game is depraved and its protagonists rotten, and you’ll start putting people off.

This latest round of blights, dealt in such quick succession, leave the game gasping for some untarnished feel-good moments. Here’s hoping for an exciting, controversy-free Olympic soccer tournament, then.