On questions of dickishness, we probably ought to judge sports commissioners on a curve. But even judged by the same sliding scale that allows some to judge David Stern a class act who GETS RESULTS despite Stern’s generally coming off as a cocky bully and haughtily laughing off one new NBA owner’s business ties with Robert Mugabe — and tolerating another NBA owner actually being Clay Bennett, which is nearly as bad — FIFA’s Sepp Blatter (above) has long been renowned as hilariously pompous and high-handed. Which, admittedly, is kind of a commissioner-y trait, but which makes the grandiose allegations of corruption Blatter has faced — you can start here, but there are numerous books on just this topic (which I haven’t read) — look that much worse.
Pretty serious — book length! — allegations of bribery and nest-feathering and general underhanded quasi-gangsterism have followed the Swiss FIFA chief through three terms atop the organization, but he has proven to be surpassingly and surprisingly bulletproof. So in a sense there’s nothing really new in this piece by Newsweek’s Luke O’Brien, which alleges that Blatter steered a super-lucrative hospitality contract towards a travel company affiliated with his nephew, Philippe. That company, MATCH, bought up two million nights’ worth of hotel rooms in South Africa during the tournament, then goosed prices to over twice their usual amount with a series of surcharges that were downright Ticketmasterful in their market-perverting unpleasantness. Hotels not affiliated with MATCH raised prices even more in an attempt to keep up. “Even $20-per-night hostels were asking $70 for a bunk bed in a dorm room,” O’Brien writes.
Which, you know, is something that happens. For a B&B in Johannesburg, high seasons don’t come much higher than an event that promises to bring 500,000-odd people to your country, credit cards akimbo. But even that pumped-up market can only bear so much tweaking and gouging, and O’Brien argues that Blatter’s sweetheart contract wound up screwing both fans and the South Africa as well.
The end result was what you might expect: foreigners, who were already paying $1,500 or more in airfare to visit South Africa, simply decided not to make the trip. Lots of people. Numbers are impossible to truly gauge because Blatter runs FIFA like one of those banks down the street from his offices in Zurich, but the best guess of Danny Jordaan, the head of the local organizing committee, is that more than half of the foreign visitors projected to show up at the tournament will instead be watching it from their sofas at home.
South Africa and FIFA both say plenty of foreigners are attending, but their numbers differ: the government says 456,000 came and FIFA, in a statement, cites 372,000 foreigners, with 97 percent of the 3,009,000 total purchasable tickets sold”though there is no way to tell how many of those tickets have actually been used. By contrast, according to Forbes, around 2 million foreign visitors came to Germany when it hosted the Cup, and all 64 matches sold out.
What™s worse, some international fans had already bought pricey game tickets ranging from $80 to $160. But now they couldn™t afford to use them. They directed their wrath at Blatter. On the forums of BigSoccer.com, angry fans inveighed against FIFA and its president. One commenter described FIFA as œunorganized organized criminals. There was even chatter about a class-action lawsuit. FIFA has tight security controls on transferring ownership of tickets and an impossibly opaque system for reselling them. Fans could get a refund, but only if FIFA offloaded the tickets for similar value”a big problem when foreign demand plummets and South Africans can™t afford to pay the same prices as tourists.
Is O’Brien stretching with any of this? I’m a firm “maybe” on that one — blaming ticket prices and a gouge-intensive hotel situation for poor World Cup attendance (both in general and at the games) during a serious global economic recession seems to kind of underplay the importance of the aforementioned serious global economic recession. But given Blatter’s
rap sheet track record, it’s hard not to see the hotel screw-up — along with such other incidences of high-handed scummery as the underpayment (by a FIFA subcontractor) of those South African security guards who briefly protested before being asked to reconsider by riot police — as another example of Blatter being Blatter. That is, being a commissioner who is not only far less holy than he acts, but something of a morally slippery, power-drunk autocrat even by commissioner standards.