FIFA Uncovered: a brief history of crime

Chronicling the ways in which rampant corruption became so intrinsic to global football, this excoriating if formally conventional documentary lays bare the begriming of the beautiful game.

20 November 2022

By Ben Nicholson

FIFA Uncovered (2022)
Sight and Sound

“If you want to run FIFA with the ethics code, good luck,” suggests Jérôme Valcke, the football governing body’s ex-Secretary General, in the closing moments of the new four-part Netflix documentary, FIFA Uncovered. “I’m not sure you can do that. I mean, that’s not the real world.” It’s a deflating remark during the equally downbeat conclusion to the limited series, which has premiered just in time for the controversial World Cup in Qatar and seeks to investigate the nature of endemic corruption at FIFA all the way from how it began to the degree to which the association has cleaned up its act today. It may be quite conventional in approach, and ultimately be recounting details that informed fans already know, but it makes for undeniably compelling viewing.

The documentary’s starting point is also the starting point of what can probably be termed ‘modern football’ – the rampant commercialisation of a working-class sport that has led across decades to the eye-watering weekly salaries and dearth of Saturday afternoon kick-offs that so many fans now bemoan. That moment was in 1974, when the ascension of the Brazilian former-Olympic swimmer João Havelange to the presidency of FIFA signalled a seismic shift in the relationships between football, money and political power. Havelange would go on to head the organisation for nearly 25 years, taking kickbacks all the while, but his tenure is presented here primarily as the precursor to – or breeding ground for – his successor. Sepp Blatter would preside over ever more flagrant and widespread misconduct, which would become very public knowledge in 2015 when the US Department of Justice intervened and pressed numerous charges, arresting 14 of FIFA’s highest-ranking members. One observation that the language being used by the DoJ was typically reserved for the mob and drug cartels is a telling sign of just how crooked the establishment had become.

As far as form goes, this is a fairly orthodox non-fiction affair. A slick production, it is composed of an array of talking-head interviews, some pretty – if slightly generic – location shots of city skylines and kids kicking a ball in the streets, and an impressive assemblage of archival material. The footage spans everything from FIFA’s innumerable congresses and press conferences to television news coverage of the events and well-placed moments of footballing spectacle. Given the subject of the series is the official governing body of association football, it might be a surprise how little of the four-hour running time is dedicated to on-pitch activity, but the few scenes of football in action are keenly deployed by director Daniel Gordon and his editors to give to an intermittent reminder of why it is the audience should care.

The talking heads provide the vast majority of the narrative structure, piecing the unfolding story together from the recollections of journalists, sports consultants, law enforcement officials, a smattering of footballers and a veritable who’s who of the individuals involved in governing and administrating the sport over the past few decades. There may be a few key faces missing (former UEFA president Michel Platini, former member of FIFA’s Executive Committee Jack Warner), but there is also a wealth of voices included, not least the likes of FIFA Executive Committee member Mohamed Bin Hammam and, perhaps most unexpectedly, Blatter himself. The success of some of these interviews remains a little debatable. There are clearly moments when certain individuals are pressed from behind the camera about contentious issues – Blatter for one, and Hassan Al Thawadi, who spearheaded the Qatari bid to host the 2022 World Cup, for another – but these are relatively minor instances of cross-examination. They’re primarily allowed to spin their own yarn.

In some ways, though, if there had been a more heated dialogue or a jaw-slackening ‘gotcha’ moment, then what eventually becomes the overriding impression in FIFA Uncovered – that of a banal, pervasive rot – might have been somewhat tempered. By the end of the fourth episode, Blatter claims he wasn’t responsible for the corruption rife under his watch (he and Platini were never actually charged with anything, despite being removed from office) and has no trouble sleeping at night. His former adviser, Guido Tognoni, ultimately reflects that if you want FIFA to avoid corruption, you “have to ask if the world can ever get away from corruption. I say no, it can’t.”

In a heart-breaking rejoinder, ex-Newcastle and West Ham goalkeeper Shaka Hislop, who was swindled out of bonuses when representing Trinidad & Tobago at the 2006 World Cup, reminds us that “the impacts [of corruption] go to every single corner of the planet. The impacts go to every single boy and girl, who dreamt as I did, as a little kid running around on a dusty field outside their house.” And yet, while Blatter may have been ousted in 2015, his replacement, Gianni Infantino, is shown shaking hands with Vladimir Putin at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The series draws a direct line from earlier instances of sports-washing – like the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin, or the 1978 World Cup in an Argentina violently oppressed by Jorge Rafael Videla’s military junta – to Russia and Qatar. Independent reports suggest that thousands of migrant workers have died preparing Qatar to host this year’s competition, but it still kicks off today. Whether the ubiquitous venality clearly laid out in FIFA Uncovered will anger people enough to boycott the impending World Cup is difficult to say, but it probably should.

► FIFA Uncovered is available to stream on Netflix now.

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