I suppose, I am not the only African who followed the Sepp Blatter saga and wondered why it sounded familiar. A son of a poor man ascends to power through loyalty. He consolidates his base during his first term and proceeds to win subsequent elections legitimately despite fierce opposition and intense international pressure. He establishes a reputation of abusing power for personal gain and is pursued by an international court over charges of bribery and grand corruption going back in years. The sums of money mentioned range in the billions. He vehemently denies any serious allegations of corruption and proceeds to declare himself the best person to tackle corruption. His popularity baffles outsiders who are convinced that his hold on power is largely facilitated by mass propaganda and intimidation. Indeed, Blatter would be at home anywhere in Africa.
In Europe he was a pariah. Diego Maradona, the great Argentinian footballer called Blatter a thief. Piers Morgan, an opinionated British media personality in a scathing Daily Mail article labelled him “a sexist, homophobic, racism-blind, inherently bent dinosaur desperately clinging onto power”. Lord Triesman, the former chairman of the Football Association speaking in the House of Lords compared FIFA to a Mafia family. No such hard feelings flowed from Africa.
African Federations largely stood with Blatter because his leadership style is familiar. Sepp Blatter was a good student of the African presidential model of longevity in office. An unprecedented 5th term, even though short-lived won him new admirers. The characteristic landslide victory with a clear majority is vintage Africa stuff. Though only President for 17 years, Sepp Blatter wielded power for close to 34 years at the helm of FIFA. He was working his way into the big leagues, to find company amongst the likes of Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Nguema Mbasogo who has led his country since 1979. Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos president for 36 years and Western media favourite, Robert Mugabe pushing 35 years as “The One”.
Blatter enjoyed loyalty and a huge following in his regional strongholds (read Africa) where he was known for his generosity and cash for football development. The beneficiaries simply did not want to experiment with change for Blatter having all the shining credentials of a benevolent dictator. Granted he had his improprieties, he distributed some of the wealth and also brought the World Cup to Africa. That was an unprecedented for a continent where most African languages did not even have a word for ball before the arrival of the Europeans at beginning of the 19th century. Before Blatter, African teams were mere spectators at the prestigious world stage. The 5 permanent World Cup slots reserved for Africa during Blatter’s reign made a strong case for inclusion.
Football after all is more than a game in Africa. It is a movement that transcends language, region, religion and racial barriers. The solidarity expressed during World Cup is remarkable and when an African team is playing, the continent rallies in unison even as no one remains under no illusions of the underdog status. It comes as no surprise then, that one of the key pieces of evidence in the FBI investigation was a $10 million payment from South Africa to Jack Warner, FIFA vice president. FBI (short of calling it a bride), allege it was a reward for votes that saw South Africa get the nod for 2010 World Cup. Everyone around here considered it a mere goodwill token of appreciation for bringing the Mundial to the continent.
Given Blatter’s previous defiant stance in the face of similar criticism, his decision to resign last week came as a bit of a let-down. Blatter’s longevity was a big part of his aura in my side of Africa. A man like Blatter was expected to either die in office or go to prison screaming and protesting. The logical thing to do would have been to step aside, allowing the heat to cool off whilst emphasizing one’s magnanimity in facilitating an independent investigation to look into the allegation. Six months later, one resumes office, cleared of charges as any sensible African power broker does.
As the FIFA power tussles dominate the news, the muscle drain of football talent from Africa to European clubs continues. Every weekend, all around Africa, millions follow them through subscribed satellite TV and celebrate the stars who made it in Europe. Africans would rather watch foreign clubs on TV than live local action in their stadiums. At home, stadiums remain empty as Federation heads fight to remain in office.
Blatter’s influence on African football chiefs was a clear example of what PLO Lumumba described as Sonkonisation. The process of distributing unknown wealth with abject abandon to entice people whose only desire is to acquire wealth by any means necessary and football has its fair share of greedy individuals. This is perhaps a lasting legacy of Sepp Blatter, the man who colonized Africa using football.