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‘FIFA Uncovered’ review: Netflix documentary traces FIFA’s power struggles and what it takes to host a World Cup

The Netflix series exposes Blatter’s role in turning FIFA from a non-profit organisation to a multi-million dollar family, the corrupt alliances that secure FIFA World Cup bids, and how football walks an ethical tightrope

The Netflix series exposes Blatter’s role in turning FIFA from a non-profit organisation to a multi-million dollar family, the corrupt alliances that secure FIFA World Cup bids, and how football walks an ethical tightrope

The rises and rise of Sepp Blatter

Within 15 minutes of the first episode, you feel a certain kind of numbness tracing the history of FIFA.

But when Sepp Blatter walks in and claims that the former FIFA President João Havelange literally handed him the job to be FIFA’s number two, it is intriguing. This sounded a lot like a cliched poor-boy-hits-the-jackpot-in-a-big-city story. How did it happen?

The series reels us in from hereon. This is the first tell from FIFA Uncovered into how FIFA functions; a secret garden and a tea party nobody invites you to… unless you can charm people into giving you loads of money. This is the one rule of the club, and you must never talk about it outside.

Sepp Blatter did just that. He was the man to strike FIFA’s first commercial deals with giants like Coca-Cola, Adidas, and International Sport and Leisure for sponsoring FIFA endeavours.. And then, began the corruption and bribery.

Not that FIFA was honest and law-abiding before Blatter. FIFA Uncovered exposes a pattern that FIFA has in handing out World Cup hosting rights: a host seeking sportswashing (using sports to improve reputations stained by wrongdoing) followed by a low-key host, and then repeat. 

Glimpses of FIFA awarding Germany the 1938 World Cup hosting rights when Adolf Hitler was in power helped drive the point home. The four-episode Netflix series also shows that Havelange awarded the World Cup to the Argentine dictatorship of 1978, and then to post-Francoist Spain of 1982, a state eager to display itself as clean as the whistle. On the bench is Sepp Blatter waiting for his time to play the game.

Blatter is shown as a cunning visionary, who upon the chance discovery of the corrupt nature of his boss, evolves into a serial negotiator, leveraging the power of knowledge that he has over Havelange to put his boss out of business. The first episode ends with executive committee members, who after elaborate courting by Blatter to vote for his presidency in 1998, suddenly turn on him and against each other.

Jump to the series’ end with an aging Sepp Blatter saying he’s “innocent until proven guilty,” having repeated this phrase during the series so many times that it makes him sound guilty.

The ‘World Cup of Fraud’

FIFA Uncovered narrates how FIFA is a political organisation masquerading as a force for good, and how each committee member is alone; a political world on steroids.

Though it is corruption that secures the World Cup hosting rights, it often brings in much-needed validation for the countries with respect to ‘legacy’ and job opportunities. But the series also shows how the money that secures these hosting rights is almost always verbal and untraceable.  

South Africa’s hosting in 2010 was won by such bribes under the table; a cool $10 million which South Africa refutes. It also hints at Vladimir Putin using the World Cup 2018 to sportswash his future crimes… not that he craves a clean ledger.

The documentary pays great attention to the timeline, but the viewing experience demands curiosity because being a well-researched story is a double-edged sword. It is not an accessible viewing experience even for a common football fan, given how it exposes the rotten nature of big sporting organisations, mired in self-serving intentions. 

A translator’s account reveals how money was offered by the AFC President on behalf of Qatar to Cameroon’s Federation Chief to vote for the Qatar World Cup hosting rights bid, illustrating how FIFA executive committee members build alliances, only to abandon each other at the first sign of trouble.

This is followed by important geopolitical deals that furthered international relations between Qatar, Thailand, France, and everyone involved. So by no stretch of the imagination, FIFA Uncovered will have you questioning whether all international businesses ever occer outside murky waters.

The ethical tightrope FIFA walks on

FIFA Uncovered also captures the eventual downfall of FIFA and Sepp Blatter. After intense scrutiny by the FBI, the U.S. Department of Justice, and media from around the world, FIFA is forced into appointing an ethics committee that was responsible for the suspension of Sepp Blatter from football governance.  

Though it gets a bit monotonous to accept that Sepp Blatter keeps on winning every FIFA Presidential election, and moans that, “we must rebuild trust,” the episodes observe how his hunger for power teetered on the edge of delusion.

In the end, we witness how the FBI exposed FIFA’s wrongdoings, and how even after Blatter’s resignation, an undertone hints that the new FIFA President Gianni Infantino is very much cut from the same cloth. 

FIFA Uncovered is currently streaming on Netflix

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