FIFA Is Its Own Metaphor: A Day Inside The Underground Bunker

Excerpted from The Soccer Diaries: An American's Thirty-Year Pursuit of the International Game.

On Dec. 2, 2010, the long-awaited secret vote and announcement of who would host both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups would be made. The U.S.-Anglo press, I thought, had a sense of entitlement and assumed they would get the respective nods. They didn't. Instead it went to Russia and Qatar.

Odd, both, but not quite the scandal it became. No one thought the U.S. should have been awarded the 1994 World Cup and yet it was a great success that left a significant legacy. Australia seemed worthy, even if it would've meant kickoff times in the wee hours on the U.S. East Coast, which had made the 2002 tournament so hard to enjoy. I had hoped Canada would have bid, but it didn't. I also thought a pan-Scandinavian bid would have been interesting or a London-only bid or Cameroon/Nigeria or Ghana/Cote d'Ivoire—but these were just my own personal musings, late at night when I couldn't get to bed, like when I was a teenager. Silly, I guess.

England had a more legitimate claim than did the United States, not having hosted since 1966, and there was likely an anti-England bias within the organization. But the Arab world did deserve a World Cup, though a shift to a January tournament to avoid the heat would have made more sense. Russia? Always a hockey country but you could make the argument that they could and should host. Turkey would have been more interesting, but it didn't bid nor was it awarded the 2016 European Championships. Sure, there were shenanigans, votes were traded, and money most likely changed hands. It was a dirty process, but somehow, I didn't share the apoplexy. So the Americans and Brits didn't get what they wanted. Boo-hoo. The U.S. got it in 1994—pretty recent in World Cup years—plus, although through a different organization, the Olympics in 1980, '84, '96, and '02. England had Euro 96 and would have the 2012 Olympics.

It seemed as if David Beckham, who, along with Prince William, was flown in for the vote, gave the same answer to the same question (How do you feel about the decision?) three different ways: Obviously, at the end of the day, we're disappointed; At the end of the day, we're disappointed obviously; We're disappointed, obviously, at the end of the day.

Even before the decision, there was steady chatter that the whole thing was rigged. Anticipating the storm, FIFA held a preemptive press conference with Sepp Blatter and his closest lieutenants. I hadn't even known about it until a visiting Australian journalist told me. (To reciprocate, I told him there was a midweek league match in town, FCZ-FC Luzern, and I got us press presses for the next day—a great 2–2 game—passing up a live Wayne Shorter concert.) FIFA granted me a credential for the press conference. It was a chance to see FIFA dysfunction and obfuscation up close—in a sumptuous leather chair.

FIFA Is Its Own Metaphor: A Day Inside The Underground Bunker

The FIFA headquarters was easy enough to get to. It overlooks Zurich from the placid hill known as Zuriberg—where James Joyce and Elias Canetti are buried at Fluntern Cemetery—and is just steps from the last stop on the No. 6 tram.

I had been there once before, just to check it out. How could I not? And I was at the house, or one of the houses, that made up the old headquarters. I got the name of someone who worked on the website and tried to get an informational interview, which I did, but all I remember from it was someone in a French accent telling me what an exclusive part of Zurich this was, something that didn't impress me. (The happening part was down below and in the ugliest interiors of town, which is where my girlfriend and I lived.)

The new glass-and-black-granite building was impressive but also odd. It had only opened in 2007 and was designed by Zurich architect Tilla Theus, product—like Herzog & de Meuron, Santiago Calatrava, and Einstein himself—of the imminent technological institute Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH), about 15 minutes away. FIFA's three-story glass façade is covered by translucent aluminum slats that suggest the netting of the soccer goal—an architectural interpretation of Tommy Smyth's " ol' onion bag"—and acts as a screen for the sun, not insignificant since this is known, famously here, as the "Gold Coast" side of Lake Zurich, the choice side, same as the Dolder Grand Hotel, but perplexing, too, since most of the offices are in the five levels belowground. So much for the view; so much for transparency. It prompts the question: Which came first, the bunker or the bunker mentality?

The building is set inside its own small park with trees and vegetation from all six continents—nice touch, that—and soccer fields that no one uses and rows of flags not unlike those on First Avenue at the United Nations, which at one point, I'd read long ago, had fewer member states than FIFA. (Whether that was good or bad, I'll leave to you.)

FIFA is separate. It's above, looks down, looks away—and maybe, in its private moments, looks over its shoulder or, one would hope, in the mirror. No matter how counterintuitive one's disposition, and no matter how much good the organization accomplishes—and it does a lot, especially the organizing and execution of under-the-radar tournaments in lands less traveled—it's difficult, especially after reading Andrew Jennings's 2006 exposé, Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals, to defend it.

Still I was willing to hear FIFA out. Part of me wanted to see Sepp Blatter, from the oft-ridiculed southwestern region of the Valais, as an underdog outsider who got under the skin of the Zurich (and Parisian and Berlin and London and Milan) city slickers. A scientist I knew in Zurich told me that the Valais was noted for its ridiculous accent, for its provincialism, and its scheming ways with money. So maybe Blatter had a chip on his shoulder for good reason. But then you'd see him in action.

After his initial comments in French, he fielded questions. The first was from the BBC and it was simple: How can you promise the football fans around the world that the votes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups will be clean? There was a long pause—eight seconds, according to my tape recorder—and then, in English, Blatter said, "What do you mean by being 'clean'?" The questions kept coming, high and tight, and then, from a Brazilian journalist, a soft ball, about whether he was worried about the progress for the 2014 World Cup. He could exhale now. And that was it for the questions; the press conference was over. And then he left us with this: "Enjoy the game, but enjoy life—it's more important." It was farce—or maybe allegory. Near the exit, I stopped at the souvenir counter and bought a T-shirt, as a kind of remembrance.

A couple of weeks later, I tried reaching the head of FIFA's ethics committee, a former Grasshoppers player named Claudio Sulser. Sulser, from Ticino, had something incredibly impressive on his resume. He was the leading scorer in the 1978-79 European Cup in which Grasshoppers made it to the quarterfinal stage before being eliminated by eventual champion Nottingham Forest. Six of his goals may have been against Maltese champ Valletta, but one was away at the Bernabéu and two more against Real at Hardturm—the last one, which put them through on away goals, in the 86th minute. You couldn't help but admire that. And I told him so, in an e-mail. I called FIFA and asked to speak to him. I was told, very robotically, that he didn't have an office at FIFA headquarters, and that he worked out of his private law practice in Lugano. Fine, I said, Can I have his number? They said they didn't have it. I researched his law firm and tried him there. I left a message with the receptionist, left my numbers, and wrote a nice e-mail. She promised he'd call. I never got a reply.


Michael J. Agovino is the author of The Bookmaker: A Memoir of Money, Luck, and Family from the Utopian Outskirts of New York City.