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Associated Press/Photo by Martin Meissner

Power kick

World Cup | Spain may have won the World Cup, and host nation South Africa received an image boost, but the unaccountable FIFA was the event's biggest winner

Issue: "Your right to vote," July 31, 2010

With tears streaming down his face, 29-year-old Iker Casillas lifted the World Cup trophy above his head. Confetti rained down on the Spanish goalkeeper and team captain, and millions of Spaniards from Galicia to the Canary Islands cheered for their team, basking in the glory of their nation's first ever World Cup win. But while Spain celebrated its sporting victory, the real winner was the man who handed Casillas the trophy: FIFA president Joseph "Sepp" Blatter.

FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) is a powerful organization. It has more members than the United Nations, and Blatter is taking over $2 billion dollars back to FIFA's Zurich headquarters. That kind of money brings power, and FIFA uses it to make more money. In South Africa, FIFA insisted on "tax-free bubbles," paying no tax on sales at stadiums or outdoor "fan-zones." The South African government also granted FIFA unprecedented powers to prosecute sponsorship violators: Uniformed South African police arrested 36 Dutch women for the crime of wearing orange dresses emblazoned with the name of a beer company that wasn't Budweiser.

Blatter is the perfect face of the organization. He comes across as a jovial soul, with a fringe of gray hair, a double chin, and smiling eyes. But looks can be deceiving: Blatter and FIFA have long been associated with corruption. The latest scandal: FIFA awarded a valuable ticketing and accommodation concession to a company owned by Blatter's nephew, Phillipe. That company booked thousands of hotel rooms across South Africa, added a hefty surcharge, then resold hotel and ticket packages to travel agents, making vast profits for themselves in the process. There's only one problem: Their fees and surcharges priced out many tourists, one of the reasons foreign attendance at the World Cup was lower than expected. This in turn led to empty seats at some early games, a blemish on the world's premier global sporting event.

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FIFA appears accountable to no one and it shows not just in the group's backroom deals but in FIFA's management of the game as well. A string of high-profile refereeing errors (two of them involving the United States) raised the issue of using instant replay to aid referees. FIFA's response: Not only would FIFA not discuss the use of instant replay, it refused to apologize or even explain the missed calls, made no mention of the mistakes in official match reports on its website, and banned discussion of the calls on its official message boards.

Blatter was joined at the trophy ceremony by South African President Jacob Zuma. While Blatter is counting record revenues, Zuma is facing the realities of life after the World Cup. As a public-relations campaign for South Africa, the 2010 World Cup was a roaring success. Foreign tabloids had predicted half-finished stadiums, nonexistent transportation links, and armies of gun-wielding gangsters robbing and murdering football fans in their sleep, but South Africa proved the doom-and-gloomers wrong. The stadiums were finished and universally praised, transportation was effective (with a few minor hiccups), and crime actually fell during the month-long tournament, with a large visible police presence making sure that soccer fans left the country as alive as they entered.

The foreign press responded gratefully, gushing over their hosts at every turn. The world celebrated an emerging nation and marveled at the progress made in the last 16 years. South Africa may not have had success on the field, but the entire nation received a confidence boost.

But that kind of press costs money. South Africa spent over $5 billion on the tournament and has recouped less than half of that from tourism and ticket sales. Benefits of new infrastructure will be offset by the cost of the shiny new stadiums, which, in places like rural Rustenburg, will now sit empty while taxpayers pay off the mortgage. Police had to break up a riot in Durban after stadium stewards protested their low pay, and local vendors, promised the chance to hawk their wares to fans near the stadium, were forced out by FIFA.

In a country with crushing poverty, still simmering race relations, and an AIDS epidemic, good feelings only go so far. South Africa is looking warily at Greece, a nation collapsing with debt and still struggling to pay for the 2004 Summer Olympics. Yet the allure remains, and the country's Olympic Committee has already proposed a bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics.

In a month, Casillas will put his World Cup glory behind him. A new season will begin, and Spain will face its next challenge: qualifying for the European Championships in 2012. South Africa must do the same, and focus its energy on internal progress: education, healthcare, and housing. As for Blatter, the next World Cup is only four years away, and there are deals to make, accounts to open, hands to shake, and palms to grease. Onward to Brazil 2014!

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