When Swiss police, acting on FBI intelligence, swooped in May and arrested several officials from FIFA, world football’s governing body, the game seemed up at last. Years of FIFA scandal and whitewash suddenly came into sharp focus.
Many countries that had bid to host the World Cup and lost in dubious circumstances – Australia among them in its vain quest to hold the 2022 edition – expected the whole house of cards to fall in short order.
But this is the FIFA melodrama, so inevitably there were more twists in the tale. President Sepp Blatter was re-elected, then announced his intention to step down. In September, he came under police investigation and was later suspended by FIFA’s ethics committee.
Yet, as with the most insistent telemarketing, there was more. Blatter then revealed that the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar stemmed from the collapse of a pre-arranged Cold War-style compromise:
Russia’s hosting of 2018 was safe. But the perfidious French – led by UEFA president Michel Platini, now also suspended for allegedly receiving a “disloyal” payment – and their voting bloc reneged on the 2022 deal, Blatter claimed, after former French president Nicolas Sarkozy met then-Qatari Crown Prince al-Thani and agreed to the sale of Rafale fighter jets.
If Blatter is telling the truth, then internal FIFA machinations made a farce of the whole bidding process and humiliated all the other aspiring hosts who arrived in Zurich with hopeful hearts in December 2010 – Spain/Portugal, Netherlands/Belgium and England (2018), and the US, South Korea, Japan and Australia (2022).
Australia’s risible return of a single executive committee vote for a A$43 million public investment, courtesy of the Rudd government, was the subject of Tuesday night’s ABC documentary, Played: Inside Australia’s Failed World Cup Bid.
Australia had already demanded its money back from FIFA when the goalposts were moved and the 2022 World Cup postponed until later in the year because of Qatar’s blistering summer heat. But the latest word from Blatter that Australia never stood a chance gives its bid team even more reason to cry foul. It also provides plenty more ammunition for those demanding answers as to why it threw itself into the World Cup cesspit in the first place.
The ABC program claims to offer “the inside story” of Australia’s disastrous World Cup bid. It offers film of strategy meetings, speech practice sessions and even footage from a camera smuggled into FIFA’s now-infamous Zurich hotel of choice, Baur au Lac. There, we are told, taking pictures is “verboten” (forbidden).
The program certainly rounded up some big players. They include Football Federation Australia (FFA) president and bid leader Frank Lowy, ex-prime minister and Lowy ally John Howard, Hollywood film director Phillip Noyce and good ol’ Sepp himself. As a range of people and FIFA spaces float across the screen, two contrasting figures dominate – the pugnacious Lowy and the oleaginous Blatter.
Presenter Leigh Sales persistently probes Lowy’s motivations and feelings. She is constantly met with a wall of frustration and outrage by her interview subject. The billionaire shopping mall operator, striker of sundry smart business deals, had been done like a dinner in the shark-infested waters of international football.
Having rebooted football in Australia in 2005 – with a bucket of money, this time from the Howard government – and overseen its 2006 return to the World Cup for the first time in 32 years, and then taken Australia out of minor Oceania into the big-league Asian Football Confederation, leading a successful bid to host the World Cup would have been the culmination of Lowy’s glittering business and sporting careers.
Instead, Lowy’s failure turned him from future-maker to fantasist. He was a victim of “hubris” who, implied former FFA CEO John O’Neill, had broken the rule: “don’t believe your own bullshit”.
Lowy’s humiliating demise in world football has a Shakespearean tinge, akin to King Lear succumbing to flattery in the way of older men living in luxurious circumstances and used to getting their own way.
Lowy’s nemesis is Blatter. The self-satisfied smirk of Blatter – remarkably brazen in view of his own much more serious travails – betrays the Machiavellian pleasure of a man who outwitted another of diminutive stature (he makes more than one reference to his and Lowy’s shortness in the program). He cannot help but parade his worldliness in throwing Lowy’s apparent naivety into stark relief.
The program tends to go along with the narrative of Australians as innocents abroad in FIFA-land, while using the device of the countdown to the winner announcement for additional dramatic tension despite the already-known car crash climax. But by spending too long inside the bid, the program only hurriedly airs wider views, such as those of one-time FFA insider, whistleblower and reform activist Bonita Mersiades.
The leading investigative reporter of FIFA, Andrew Jennings, has poured scorn on the Australian World Cup bid. He called for heads to roll. Jennings’ trenchant critique is signally absent from this program, which aired on the very day that Lowy passed the FFA ball to a new chairman – his son, Steven.
FIFA may have seen the player played. But despite Australia being $43 million in the hole, the Lowy football dynasty lives on.