Received wisdom seems to be that, once the baton of running FIFA was passed on from safe and reliable English hands, there was a rapid descent into a quagmire of unethical goings on. Even Uncle Sepp himself now admits that FIFA “has had a rough time of late” and concedes that there is now “the need for change and the urgent need for sweeping reforms” (1). He concludes “FIFA remains committed to walking the walk and won’t get stuck in solely talking the talk. By December, this will become clear for all to see. Until then, I invite everybody to bear with us so that we can clean house and come back to the public with facts that allow FIFA to enter a new decade of doing business. And never again revert to doing “business as usual”.“ Whether he himself decides to ‘walk the walk’ is anybody’s guess.
I’m just back from a work trip and have been reading en route Sir Stanley Rous’s autobiography Football Worlds, published in 1978, a couple of years after he had been replaced as FIFA’s President by João Havelange. A couple of passages particularly caught my eye as they reveal that back then all was not 100% squeaky clean. Consider this first quote:
“In Nasser’s day I was once present to watch a game there when the Sudan played Egypt in the final of a competition. My host was General Mostafa, later Vice-President of FIFA, and an enthusiastic crowd of 110,000 worked themselves to a pitch of excitement when the winner had to be drawn by lot after the game had ended with the scores level. The referee was blindfolded before making the draw, and a great roar of cheers greeted his pulling out the slip with Egypt on it.
“When the General returned from the field I congratulated him on the luck of the draw. He replied that there was no luck involved as, by agreement, both pieces of paper had Egypt written on them. He may have been joking, but the Sudanese officials showed no sign of disappointment and the result made the day for Nasser and the spectators.“
This, for some reason, brought to mind a different recent occasion when, rather than two identical slips of paper, a voting card had only one choice on it.
Sir Stanley was not averse to telling a story against himself. He writes this from his days refereeing, concerning a game between Millwall and Charlton:
“At a crucial point in the game I saw a defender’s hand fist the ball away in a goalmouth melee. As I blew the whistle for a penalty the players untangled themselves and looked at me in surprise. It was then that I realised that it was the goalkeeper, not a full-back, who had punched the ball. So I walked past the penalty spot, past the goalposts, to the edge of the crowd and called at the top of my voice: ‘If the man with the whistle blows it again I will have him removed.’ Then I restarted the game by dropping the ball and the mistake was retrieved without disaster.“
A more innocent age perhaps, or perhaps not, than the kind of confessions that can appear in autobiographies today (2) – a reference to Matt Le Tissier, to save you clicking through.
Overall, one would have to conclude that, compared to today’s ills, it was generally a much more ethical football scene, but not some Halcyon era of perfect ethics.