Any list of the villains of 2011/12 would inevitably feature those despots toppled during the outpourings of ‘people power’ throughout North Africa. Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and most memorably (and gorily) Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, were either forced into exile; or in the latter case, lynched in the full glare of YouTube.
In this country, revelations over the depths to which some journalists would stoop to obtain salacious stories led to the timely demise of Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World. In the end, so many names became implicated in the phone-hacking scandal it would be impossible to give anyone prominence in adding them to a villain list. Although most organisations of any integrity tend to accept the buck for any serious misdemeanours, especially overtly criminal activity, must lie with senior management. Former editor Rebekah Brookes resigned in the wake of the toxic fallout. Rupert Murdoch tried to quietly slip out of the limelight, licking the wounds to his reputation and the custard pie aimed at his face by an idiotic protester during the Leveson enquiry.
One name that surely must be added (or rather, re-added, as he has been guilty of so much over the years) is Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter, the 75-year-old president of FIFA, international football’s governing body – an organisation that represents more members than the United Nations.
In 2011 Blatter once again demonstrated a level of wisdom equivalent to a grumpy chimpanzee tossing faeces. In TV interviews on CNN World Sport and Al Jazeera he was asked to comment on the extent of racism in football. He refuted any such allegation, claiming if there were incidents of racial abuse they could be countered by a polite handshake at the final whistle.
He added, perceptively: “You may say something to someone who’s not looking exactly like you, but at end of match it’s forgotten”.
Taken aback by the subsequent backlash, Blatter backtracked, using the classic post-gaffe defence his words had been misinterpreted. He even posted a woefully misjudged photograph of himself hugging someone black (South African FIFA official Tokyo Sexwale) on the FIFA website. Taken by surprise, the hapless South African could only grin in embarrassment at being subjected to Blatter’s uncharacteristic and unwelcome bear-hug. Blatter’s crocodile smirk was reminiscent of footage of Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic gurning beside Muslim civilians who were taken away to be machine-gunned the moment the camera crews had gone.
Blatter has spouted so much gibberish over the years this latest lunacy wasn’t surprising. In 2004 he suggested women footballers wear tighter shorts. “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. Female players are pretty”.
When FIFA was embroiled in corruption allegations earlier in 2011, Blatter denied the world football body was in crisis. Within weeks ex-presidential candidate Bin Hammam, along with six Caribbean officials, were banned for life for financial irregularities. The 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar, an absolute monarchy with zero football heritage but the world’s largest oil reserves. In this Gulf state, same-sex relationships are illegal. Blatter simply shrugged, suggesting gay fans choosing to travel to the tournament should refrain from sexual activity.
Perhaps Blatter imagines football as it might have appeared in The Truman Show, with free-flowing play on lush green pitches, each stadium an oasis safely screened from society’s anti-social elements. But his assumption that when 22 men begin kicking a ball around they somehow become divorced from the society they will return to after 90 minutes isn’t just blinkered. It’s as bonkers as Neville Chamberlain’s optimism that a scrap of paper bearing Adolf Hitler’s scrawl would avert World War Two.
Blatter’s remarks belittled racism, giving free reign to cretins to use offensive racial slurs.They undermined years of painstaking campaigning by anti-racist organisations such as Kick it Out who described his remarks as ‘worryingly out of touch’.
What elevated Blatter’s gaffe from the same ball park as Prince Philip’s senior moments is the FIFA president’s influential position. Football is incredibly high profile. FIFA may blow the World Cup viewing figures out of proportion (claiming a global audience of billions for the benefit of potential sponsors). Nevertheless it remains the planet’s number one spectator sport.
There is nothing new about unsavoury issues being swept under the carpet. America landed on the moon while its air force was carpet-bombing south-east Asia. It suits prosperous nations to present one face to the rest of the world while denying the enormity of deep-rooted social problems.
FIFA’s president needs a reality check. Blatter deserves to be made to sit in a chair with his eyes pinned open, Clockwork Orange style, then force-fed DVDs of what the Allied troops found when they liberated the Nazi death camps. His suggested solution to ‘forgive and forget’ will solve nothing. It will do the exact opposite, empowering racists to carry on abusing, safe in the knowledge redemption is a simple handshake away.
By trivialising the issue Blatter demeaned the victims and became an apologist for the perpetrators. Anyone with a racist or fascist mindset deserves nothing, least of all a gentlemanly handshake.