Can Criminological Theory Explain FIFA?


Is there any way that criminological theory can help to explain the current scandals engulfing FIFA, the re-election of Sepp Blatter prior to the announcement of his resignation and the general “business as usual” approach that has been adopted? Is FIFA in denial about what has happened and the scale of the challenges that it faces?

These questions seem to me to require more sophisticated analysis than the personalizing of blame on Blatter himself – who has of yet been accused of nothing – and one or two FBI-indicted “bad apples”. Are we looking at the proverbial “bad barrel” and, if that indeed is the problem, can we find a solution simply by appealing to the World Cup’s multi-national sponsors to withdraw their support?

First, let me explain that I am not a football fan and so please do not think that I have some specialist sports-related knowledge. Yet, even as a rugby fan and ex-player, I have watched almost in disbelief as events at FIFA have unfolded and listened with rapt incredulity as Blatter batted away criticism and found himself re-elected. Did those who voted for him not actually realize what they were doing? Were they deluded and, as the late Stan Cohen once suggested, “in denial”, dismissing the repeated claims of extortion, corruption and fraud that were being levied at them and the organisation that they represented?

Criminological theory can help to provide us with some of the answers both at an individual level and more broadly.

At the individual level many will be familiar with “cognitive distortions” – those ways that allow the mind to convince you of something that simply isn’t true; that reality isn’t as it seems. Such cognitive distortions include “black and white thinking” – you are either with me or against me – with no grey in between. Is this a good starting point?

Matza’s “techniques of neutralisation” could also help to explain why Blatter – at least until he tendered his resignation – made light of the issues facing FIFA almost as if the charges were less than serious; as beneath his contempt. This way of neutralising the seriousness of the allegation reminds me of offenders who dismiss the seriousness of their crimes because they were “drunk”, “with friends” or “on holiday” when they occurred.

However, we also have to remember that Blatter was in charge, and so when he speaks or behaves in this way he does so not just as an individual but as an official.

So what’s going on here?

Stan Cohen once talked about there being three “states of denial”: literal denial; interpretive denial; and implicatory denial. The first – literal denial – simply denies that the “facts” or events which you claim are true did not happen. There’s a temptation to see Blatter’s behavior from this perspective, but that would be wrong no specific denial of the corruption was forthcoming.

Interpretive denial agrees that the events that form the basis of the allegations may indeed have happened, but they should be interpreted differently. In other words, that they have another meaning from the one which is implied. Does this furnish us with a better understanding of Blatter and FIFA?

Or is this is a conspiracy – a conspiracy because England and the USA did not win their World Cup bids, the Russians and Qatar did and everything that FIFA is currently experiencing can be explained by these geo-political realities? No doubt conspiracy theorists will jump at the opportunity that the Blatter/FIFA affair provides them with, but because the term “conspiracy” implies secrecy, such theories can never be proven and tend to roll on for decades, becoming ever more fantastic and convoluted.

We might also employ Goffman and his now rather well-worn idea of “the presentation of self”. Blatter is trying to guide and control how we view him and the organization that he represents. He doesn’t want to be thought of as someone who might have permitted crime to have been committed during his tenure, but as a decent, urbane and civilized man. Goffman may have been right on one level, but isn’t this rather banal and unable to explain the sheer scale of the ‘backstage’ reality?

Finally we might also employ the old criminological idea of “white-collar crime” – the “crimes of the powerful”, and how these crimes are policed very loosely in late Modernity with its culture of deregulation, which has produced what Steve Tombs calls the “crisis of enforcement”? The political and legal systems are simply not geared up to exposing and regulating corruption in such high places.

However, these theories, although good in their day, are starting to show their age. In the bygone era of real politics, it might have been necessary to “interpretively deny” such corruption and keep it hidden ‘backstage’, perhaps by conspiring in secret, because it might have angered Western populations. In turn, these populations – given strength by real socialist or social democratic politics that could pose at the very least a potent regulatory threat to the capitalist system – might have applied “social pressure” by demanding stringent legal action and political regulation.

But is this the case today? Perhaps not. Now we need contemporary criminological theory capable dealing with the world as it is.

In the current cynical era of what criminological theorists Steve Hall and Simon Winlow call “post-politics”, denial and concealment are far less necessary and revelations such as this one cause a brief media stir before quickly fading into the background to allow things carry on as normal.

Ideology now works differently – where once we didn’t know much about things like corruption and therefore didn’t address it, now most of us know fine well that there’s a lot of corruption around. However, we just accept it because we no longer think an alternative to the current system is possible, or even that it can be politically regulated. Where once we let things like corruption go because we didn’t know much about them, now we let things go because we do know about them but don’t think we can do much to stop them.

Capitalism has always been about competition and competition has always been about winners and losers. Driven in the deregulated neoliberal era by a minimally-controlled “obscene Real” of envy, and the “obscene enjoyment” of “amour-propre” – enjoying the elevation of the self and the downfall of others – is the system now moving beyond ethical and political control? FIFA, riding on the back of the world’s most popular sport, has been a big winner. In the relative absence of regulation it’s members have, in Steve Hall’s words, granted themselves “special liberty” to “get things done” – awarding contracts to those who want to pay the most, or so it is alleged – and ensuring that there is a World Cup that will make huge profits and keep the people happy.

Has FIFA been staffed by a number of what Hall calls “criminal undertakers”, people who, in the knowledge that they will probably get away with it, “undertake” to get things done to smooth the way for profitable business deals even when circumstances demand corruption and crime.

Once the media spectacle winds down and everyone forgets about the issue, Western consumers, in their state of permanent acceptance, will be happy to carry on consuming their football and once again simply accept the corruption that they all know to be going on in some parts of the sport’s administration.

In fact, looked at in this way, in the age of cynical “capitalist realism”, is FIFA the perfect embodiment of postmodern capitalism and the consuming public’s acceptance of its inherent flaws, rather than some sort of aberration?

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