June 2, 2015, by Charlotte Anscombe

Has Sepp Blatter lost his moral authority? Following the FIFA president’s fifth re-election, Professor Stephen Mumford asks if the footballing power player has lost control of his followers.

There is something noble about sport that is worth preserving. As Bernard Suits argues in The Grasshopper (Broadview Press, 3rd edn 2014), ‘The playing of games involves a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’.

That we participate willingly suggests that we think there is something of intrinsic value in playing. We are also interested in such games as watchers. Just as in viewing art or reading novels, it is liberating when we do something that serves no practical purpose but merely because we want to.

Sport is the institutionalised form of games. Football began as a very informal game with no fixed rules played by amateurs for fun on any size of field with any number of players. The form we know today is a result of codification and standardisation by authorities that took control of the game. The Football Association was formed in England in 1863, for some time being the dominant authority. But the popularity of the new sport led to its adoption around the world and the eventual formation of a world governing body, FIFA, in 1904

From a purely formal point of view, the re-election of Sepp Blatter as President of FIFA leaves him as empowered as he was before. You might think even more so, given that this will be his fifth term leading the organisation. But it is clear that there is a different kind of authority that he now lacks and has probably not held for some time. Amid talk of fraud and corruption and the arrests of a number of FIFA officials, Mr Blatter has himself faced no charges and may never do so. There is a perception that he has, however, lost any moral authority to preside over the game. Yet he also looks increasingly like a man who doesn’t care that he has lost the moral argument.

It seems very hard for anyone to now enjoy watching the next two World Cup tournaments, scheduled for Russia and Qatar. There is already a catastrophic death toll of migrant workers building the stadiums for the Qatar World Cup of 2022. How can anyone in good conscience sit back and enjoy games of football that have cost so many lives in stadia that could be haunted by the ghosts of the exploited and abused? Can FIFA and their many commercial sponsors really expect us to buy into such World Cups? Will brands really want to be associated with this?

An unenlightened despot might think it possible to cling to formal power when moral authority is lost. There are many cases where that might be true. In the case of sports, however, the viewer wants to feel they are in tune with some of the nobility out of which the game originated. It then becomes a risky business for FIFA to plough on irrespective of public opinion. Without our interest, their TV rights and advertising are worth nothing. If they can only offer us a morally repugnant show, they may find that their empire is very fragile indeed.

Posted in Social Sciences