The Fall of the House of FIFA

The Multimillion-Dollar Corruption at the Heart of Global Soccer


By David Conn

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In 2015, FIFA-the multibillion dollar governing body of the world’s most-loved sport-was brought down by allegations of industrial-scale bribes, kickbacks, money laundering, racketeering and tax evasion. Beginning with early morning raids in Zurich and the indictment of twenty-seven executives by the US Department of Justice, the rottenness at the core of FIFA seemed to extend throughout all of soccer, from the decision to send the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar to lesser known cases of embezzlement from Trinidad to South Africa.

David Conn writes the definitive account of FIFA’s rise and fall, covering in great detail the corruption allegations and the series of scandals that continued to shake the public’s trust in the organization. The Fall of the House of FIFA situates FIFA’s unraveling amidst revealing human portraits of soccer legends such as Michel Platini and Franz Beckenbauer and features an exclusive interview with former president Sepp Blatter. Even as he chronicles the biggest sport scandal of all time, Conn infuses the book with a passionate love of the game, delivering an irresistible read.



The People's Game

All the people who love football, the uncountable, ever-expanding millions or billions of us, will forever remember their first World Cup. For children, watching on television the faraway stars and splendours of the rolling matches, it is greater than entertainment and remembered with more than fond nostalgia: it is a formative experience. At the risk of blurting out a near-religious affinity for football, a simple, natural sport, so early in this account of how its world governing body, Fifa, crumpled into a mire of corruption and lies, I do believe there is in the World Cup something transcendent.

My first was 1974, the tournament played in the west of divided Germany, won finally by the host country whose strong and capable team, helmed by the visionary and rarefied skills of its captain, Franz Beckenbauer, overcame the fabulous, elaborate Holland of Johan Cruyff.

I was nine. I watched the whole spectacle, transfixed, on a big wooden lump of a colour telly in the living room of our house in north Manchester, where football was all around, woven into childhood. One of my earliest memories is of walking to infant school with my friend Anthony, and seeing the big boys in the junior school thundering through a mass game in the playground. As we passed by, a boy scored a neat, side-footed goal between the lines in the tarmac which passed for goals, and he wheeled sprinting away with an arm in the air and all his team running after him. I always wanted to be in the thick of that tumult, to play the game, and to be good at it.

Being taken to see United at Old Trafford and City at Maine Road, my head waist-high to the enormous crowds gathered there, connected our scamperings in the playground, park and garden to a much wider experience. I remember a friend of my dad's pointing to some mass synchronised singing, swaying and clapping on the Stretford End at United, and I instinctively understood there was a deep swell of passion and tradition formed for football long before I was born into the swim of it. When it came to the challenge every Manchester boy faces, sometimes demanded with menaces–City or United–my dad, a lapsed Bolton Wanderers supporter, gave no direction to follow, and with my freedom to choose I opted for City. The club was not the corporate, mega-wealthy, Abu Dhabi-owned, multinational City Football Group of today, nor were City the underachieving poor relations of United then; in the early seventies City had international stars and were the superior Manchester club. Bobby Charlton, the great engine of United's recovery as a football club from the human tragedy of the 1958 Munich air crash, star for England in the 1966 and 1970 World Cups, was exhausted by then. The bright-eyed Belfast boy George Best, who unfurled his playground skills in the grandest stadiums, was already being scooped up in drinking basements in town. Denis Law, the other maestro in United's triumphant trio, was a City striker for a final season or two by the time I emerged into football consciousness.

The gruff, tough pride Manchester men had for football was stamped into the city's character, and I think I was dimly aware of the general impression that we, in England, even 'invented' the game. I never gave that much credence because the people who made a point of it only seemed to do so when they were angry, in bad-tempered exasperation at a modern game or world gone wrong, and with some implicit hostility to 'foreigners' thinking they owned it.

It was only as an adult, a journalist researching the roots of football to understand its hyper-commercially exploited modern incarnation, that I read into the game's history properly and discovered that this claim of British national pride is actually, remarkably, true. Football, its proportions, layout of the pitch and rules, which allow for its endlessly thrilling expression, were indeed first established and agreed at the historic meetings of the newly christened Football Association at the Freemason's Tavern in London's Lincoln's Inn, in 1863.

Now I believe that these fascinating and cherished origins should be taught to young people as a valuable part of learning football, and history, but they are not, and many of football's adherents love the game all their lives without ever knowing how it all began. Growing up, we experienced these roots not as explicit history lessons but as a received sense of heritage, with innate values, from teachers at school and the dads who ran our clubs in the Sunday leagues. They strove to impart the understanding that along with the human instinct to get hold of that ball and run with it, dribble, boot it into the goal, came a necessary teamwork. When I started to play the game properly, on an actual grass pitch, I was quite startled to discover the degree of effort and fitness it demanded, and the challenge of sustaining it. There were the obvious rules of the game itself, against fouling, bullying, cheating and other thuggery–not always observed in the snarling confrontations, which passed for football, we grew up to encounter in some of Manchester's badlands. There was a decency we all soon understood in not lording a victory too cockily, and in having to scrape ourselves up after a defeat and shake hands with the boys on the other side. There were, to acknowledge the words now proclaimed as global commandments by Fifa and Uefa, fair play and respect, inherently required in the essence and conduct of the game.

Before the World Cup magically turned up on television in the summer of 1974, I am not sure I knew much about it at all. I can remember watching only two international matches before that tournament, both famous defeats for England, who were sinking into what would be a prolonged hangover following their victory at Wembley in their home World Cup of 1966. The first match was a 3–1 evisceration by Beckenbauer's West Germany at Wembley, in which Günter Netzer seemed to play uncontested in midfield, and which I did not even realise was the quarter-final of the 1972 European Championships, ultimately won by West Germany. The second was the generation-defining 1–1 home draw with Poland in October 1973, which meant England had not even qualified to play in the World Cup finals, when their goalkeeper Jan Tomaszewski was extraordinary and ours, Peter Shilton, let their goal through his legs. I couldn't quite take in what it all meant at the end, but remember running out of the lounge, crying in dismay.

I could, of course, regret that timing now, wonder what it might have been like had my first World Cup experience been the self-congratulatory national glow of England's 1966 triumph. Or 1970 in Mexico, the first World Cup on colour television, illuminated by the golden, trophy-claiming brilliance of Brazil. I educated myself about it years later, watching repeatedly the wonder of that goal in the final scored by the captain Carlos Alberto, surely still the greatest team goal ever scored. It is decorated by the short square pass played into his stride by Pelé, so easy looking, which somehow encapsulates the very beauty football can craft from its simple elements. There is the picture from that tournament which Fifa itself used as the signature image for its 2004 centenary publication, as the essence of football's achievement: England's Bobby Moore and Pelé, embracing and congratulating each other after Brazil's 1–0 win in the group. A white man and a black man, both great stars, united through sport in mutual admiration.

But I never really thought that at all; a child doesn't: you grow into the era which is yours. The 1966 triumph was bored into us with a load of other landmarks from before our time, which, we were endlessly told by our elders, showed why things weren't as good as in their day. England's absence was all we knew, so we accepted the World Cup without them; Pelé had retired from international football, Brazil were famously and jarringly stolid in 1974, and my generation had to wait until the 1982 World Cup in Spain to see a Brazil of marvellous talents.

So the 1974 tournament came on television, and I just watched it, agog, all this splendour laid out, on school nights in north Manchester. The memory of it is somehow draped across years of general impressions from my childhood: often I picture myself watching it in the next house we moved to, but that is not possible because we didn't go there until 1976. I watched the historic East Germany versus West Germany group game, which east won 1–0, as a football match, without any understanding of the profound political meaning with which the contest was freighted. I always remember seeing live the arcing, swerving volley from the edge of the penalty area scored by the centre-forward Ralf Edström, for Sweden, and the way the raindrops fell off the back of the net as the ball bulged into it.

As a nine-year-old I was strangely and somewhat ungratefully underwhelmed by Cruyff. Of his forever celebrated backheel swivel turn against Sweden, I pronounced myself unable to see what all the fuss was about. My uncle Stephen, fourteen years younger than my dad and still playing Sunday league football when I was a boy, had taught me a similar move in the back garden not long before that. The Conn turn involved putting the sole of your foot on top of the ball, rolling it backwards, then turning round and running on with it. I got it into my head that what Cruyff had done was as basic a trick as that. When Cruyff died in March 2016 of cancer aged sixty-eight–a smoker's premature age, two months after David Bowie, another icon of my generation and another smoker, died aged sixty-nine–the Cruyff turn was shown endlessly with the tributes, and I gazed on what I had failed to appreciate as a kid.

It was truly a feat of wonder. It was elegant beyond imagining. It was conducted in front of a live, global television audience of hundreds of millions, on the highest platform of the world's most popular sport. You can see that Cruyff knew exactly what he was going to do. He disguised the turn with an extravagant swing of his right foot, as if to pass long across the penalty area. His drag back was just a little more finely wrought than the sole-on-ball trick Uncle Stephen had shown me to bamboozle my friends in the playground. But watching the turn now, with an adult appreciation from a life of playing and watching football, understanding how deceptive the game's simplicity is and how infinite the task of mastering it, I love most what Cruyff did next. It is his emergence from the turn, how he runs on so effortlessly, controlling the ball so easily with his left foot, the perfection of his balance, which gets you every time.

The Sweden defender caught as the bemused foil for this brilliantly executed sporting achievement, which was done in a couple of seconds and is still being watched all around the world forty-two years later, gave a lovely interview about it after Cruyff passed away. Jan Olsson said he knew when it happened it would become famous, that there was nothing he could have done in the face of such genius, that he remembers it every day, that he was 'proud to have been there'.

'After the game,' Olsson said, 'I thanked [Cruyff] for the match and said congratulations. Even though it was 0–0, it was right to say congratulations.'

Beckenbauer, the other great player of that tournament and era, was different. He was class in footballer form. He had carved out the exotic role of sweeper and shaped it into a means of controlling the pace and direction of the whole game from the back. He was always upright, never under any pressure, forever in space. The game seemed to stop and form itself for him. Even at nine years old, I could not get enough of the way he stroked the ball with the outside of his right foot; it was so unnecessarily exquisite. I have since seen the film of him playing in the World Cup of 1966, up to the final defeat to England, and scoring against England in West Germany's 3–2 victory in 1970, and it still seems odd to see him in midfield, young, dribbling, attacking at speed. In 1974, his bouncing black curls were receding a little; he was wearing the captain's armband, he calmly played and prodded Germany back into the final after the shock of Holland's first-minute penalty, won by Cruyff. His authority looked effortless. At the end of the final, he even lifted the schlock golden trophy–newly forged because the old Jules Rimet version was given permanently to Brazil in 1970 after their third victory–with style and poise; his smile the consummate combination of pride and humility.

As many football lovers of my generation have said, partly we were so entranced because we were watching live, full football matches on television. There were no live matches besides the FA Cup final and internationals because of the authorities' fear that this would reduce the numbers of people going to the matches, when supporters' money was more necessary to each club than the small sums paid by the broadcasting companies. Then the World Cup came on and suddenly we were served up the greatest football which could be played, by these astounding stars, in colour, on television, night after night. My dad had grown oblivious and borderline hostile to football by then, and neither of my brothers was interested, so I watched it all on my own, just me and the telly, opening out to an altogether more splendid world.

The World Cup, I think, was transcendent because it connected the local efforts we made playing football and the grand feats of our proud Manchester clubs and their national contests, and broadened them, showing us that this game was beloved worldwide. We were graced by being part of something much bigger than we had imagined, greater than ourselves.

If pushed, I would say that the name Fifa did seep to some extent into my perception of the tournament, even then. The organisation was branded into the World Cup which it organised and in effect owned, and I think I was faintly aware of that, just as I understood that the FA was there as a disembodied presence in England, somehow overseeing the sport. Of course I did not know anything as a nine-year-old boy, captured for life by football and the World Cup, of Fifa's structure, its committees, or the ambitions of the men seeking to inhabit them. I didn't know anything and never gave a second's thought to money in football; I would have been quite baffled if told that the broadcasters had to pay Fifa for the right to beam the football into our homes.

Yet now that Fifa, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, has been brought low by proven corruption on a dizzying, entrenched scale, it is ever clearer that 1974 was, coincidentally for me, the year of seismic change for the organisation. In the contested election of the president at the Frankfurt congress just before the World Cup, the Brazilian businessman João Havelange finally and controversially supplanted the seventy-nine-year-old English administrator, Sir Stanley Rous.

Contemplating the major and surprising influence we now know was brought to bear on the politics of Fifa and other sporting organisations by the boss of the sportswear firm Adidas, Horst Dassler, it is startling how dominant the brand is when you see the 1974 World Cup again. The sponsorships worked on me as they did on millions of others, as Dassler intended them to, subliminally: I found as I grew up that the three stripes of Adidas denoted coveted style and glamour, without noticing consciously that Beckenbauer was wearing their boots. Holland, too, were wearing Adidas, although famously Cruyff himself had a deal with Puma, the rival company created after a Dassler family split, and he wore two stripes on his shirt rather than the Adidas three. In the game played between East and West Germany, Adidas transcended the political divide, the wall between repressive communism and socially enlightened capitalism, and managed to have both teams wearing their boots. Even Zaire, the single representative of Africa's growing and restless football-playing countries, wore Adidas.

In 1974, as a child, I fell like so many other people for the miracle of football, the World Cup, which Fifa had organised and delivered impeccably. Of course I was not to know that the election of that year, and that tournament, was a watershed, marking the beginnings of the culture which would culminate forty-one years later in Zurich, in arrests, indictments and Fifa's traumatised, toxic implosion.


Fifa's Smiley Face

It was exactly thirty-five years later, when I had grown up a bit, and become a journalist drawn into investigating modern football's entanglements with money, that I first encountered the American Fifa chief, Charles 'Chuck' Blazer. It was in the Gulf, in Abu Dhabi, in the summer of 2009. I was there because I was inquiring for the Guardian into the improbable takeover of my boyhood football club, the beloved sky blue of Manchester City, by the scion of that far-flung country's ruling family, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Mansour's executives had suggested that to understand Abu Dhabi, and its intentions for City, I should come and see the country when preparations were stepping up for the Fifa club world championship, which they were hosting as part of their broader nation-promoting activities. There was to be an update and a press conference, some excitements at the country's one big football stadium, and the local Al Jazira football club, which Mansour also owned.

That was why Blazer was there: he was the Fifa executive committee member with responsibility for overseeing the club world championship. A New Yorker, he had in 1996 garnered this position of power among the twenty-four men of the world governing body's highest decision-making forum, whose responsibility extended to voting on which country should host the World Cup. His ascendance came six years after Blazer had been appointed the secretary general, like a chief executive, of his geographical football region, Concacaf: the Confederation of North and Central America and Caribbean Football Associations. In that position, he had worked intimately for twenty years with Jack Warner, a former college history lecturer in his native Trinidad whom Blazer had supported to become the Concacaf president in 1990. Warner had since, as the two of them planned, led a coalescing of power for the small Caribbean islands, uniting to cast their votes as a block of thirty-one among Concacaf's forty-one countries, which included much bigger nations, principally the US, Canada and Mexico. In the election of a president, all Fifa's 211 countries' FAs vote, so Warner could become a man of influence, wielding the block Concacaf and Caribbean numbers.

Concacaf were entitled to elect or appoint three members to the Fifa executive committee, the same number as the South America football confederation, Conmebol. Oceania, representing New Zealand and mostly Pacific island countries, had one representative, the Confederation of African Football and Asian Football Confederation had four each. Uefa, representing Europe, the richest, strongest and oldest football region, had, through the politics and compromises which shaped Fifa over the years, retained eight representatives. The president, Sepp Blatter, elected by a majority of the member FAs in 1998, 2002 and unopposed in 2006, made it twenty-four, sitting around the top table at Fifa headquarters, the so-called 'House of Fifa', in Zurich.

Jack Warner would become a great deal more notorious after 2009 but he was already infamous then for his fiery, declamatory manner and for his involvement in ticketing scandals over the years. The first, in 1989, concerned the crucial World Cup final qualifying match for Trinidad and Tobago, which his home country had only to draw with the USA to claim a place in the 1990 World Cup. Terrible overcrowding outside and inside the stadium led to the accusation that Warner, the president of the Trinidad and Tobago FA, had had 15,000 too many tickets printed and sold, leading to a judicial inquiry which never reported. Watched from the packed stands the USA won the match 1–0, and they, rather than a devastated home side, went through to play at the World Cup in Italy. In 2006, Warner was found by Fifa's own inquiry, conducted by the consultants Ernst & Young, to have had tickets for that year's World Cup in Germany picked up by his son, Daryan. They were then provided to a travel company, Simpaul, owned by the Warner family, which sold them at a premium, above face value, in breach of Fifa's rules. Fifa's disciplinary committee reprimanded Jack Warner but took no action against him because, they concluded, it could not be proved that he knew about the resale of the tickets. Warner had declared himself 'vindicated'.

Blazer had not been exposed for major wrongdoing then; far from it, he was still an undisputed master of the football universe. He was known for his unashamed big-ness, his outsized personality and social life which he exhibited on a blog, proudly titled Travels with Chuck Blazer and Friends. Pride of place at the top of the blog was a picture of an elderly Nelson Mandela, presumably being displayed as one of Blazer's friends, in a private plane with a rug over his legs. It was taken when Mandela made the long and, to him, arduous journey from South Africa to Trinidad at Warner's request in 2004, when South Africa were entreating Warner to vote for the country to host the 2010 World Cup. Blazer and his girlfriend, Mary Lynn Blanks, are smiling, facing the camera, their expressions saying: get us, on a private plane with the living legend, Mandela.

When I went to Abu Dhabi, it was August, impossibly hot, 40 degrees, and shirt-soaking 80-degree humidity. The locals, the Emiratis, and their visitors and expatriate professionals, lived their whole lives in air-conditioned buildings, linked by journeys in air-conditioned cars. When I went outside, the heat and humidity immediately steamed my glasses up, the reverse of home where that happens when you go indoors from the cold. Mansour's people showed me some projects the country was building to fulfil the plans of Sheikh Zayed, Mansour's father, to develop an economy beyond reliance on oil, and to attain influence through cultural and sporting investment. They took me to Yass, to see the Formula One racetrack built at great cost for an Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and the Ferrari visitor attraction adjoining it; to the Sheikh Zayed Stadium, and they talked me through the country's wealth, and plans. I noticed, as all visitors presumably must, that the only people actually outside on the streets in that heat were Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi workers, in thick overalls and heavy boots, toiling to build the Emiratis' towers, malls and hotels. I was aware of the campaigns by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International highlighting the poor wages, living conditions and lack of employment rights for these people, and I sought some out to talk to. They were not the worst treated; their pay was modest and accommodation communal, but they told me others had it worse. Their greatest lament was being away from their families, many with babies and very young children whose pictures they showed me, for so many months at a time. After the majority of the Fifa executive committee, fourteen members, made the shock and far-reaching vote on 2 December 2010 to send the 2022 World Cup to another, rival Gulf emirate, Qatar, I often wondered if on their chauffeur-driven, red-carpet visits to the region, through their darkened windows, they much noticed the immigrant workers at all.

I first saw Blazer in the Emirates Palace Hotel, a vast, lavish kingdom of a complex, reported in the Dubai press to have cost $3bn to build, the second most expensive hotel in the world. The wide and long floors from the entrance to the room where Blazer was giving his audience were paved in endless marble. The domes in the roof were decorated with gold. The Al Nahyan family used the hotel partially as a seat, and the country's ruling council, I was told, met there. There were expatriate professionals, in suits, walking briskly through the complex on business, while groups of Emirati men were often sitting serenely in the lobby in traditional ankle-length dishdasha robes and headdress, running their beads through their hands and chatting.

Blazer came crashing through this scene as if he, not the Al Nahyans, owned the place. He is a big man, with a very red face set into a bushy white beard and curly white hair. Some have said he is like Santa Claus, and so he was, a dystopic American version of Father Christmas. He was, it has unavoidably to be observed, grossly overweight, on a scale of obesity so beyond a normal sight that it took a moment to adjust the eyes to it. He was so sadly enormous that he could not walk except with great difficulty, and he was in a large mobility scooter, which he was riding like a giant dodgem car, hovering cheerfully around the marble floors of the Emirates Palace. He was quite brazenly unembarrassed about the spectacle he presented; he had assistants and Fifa staff always in attendance, and he was barking orders at them, like a cartoon bad boss in a caper movie.

It would be nice to be able to describe the attention being paid to him differently, but it can only be properly expressed as bowing and scraping. This was not because the young Fifa or Abu Dhabi football officials were natural sycophants to a character like him; far from it, they came across as very professional, preparing to expertly organise another international tournament in a new host country. Their obedient respect to him was clearly because his position demanded it. He was the Fifa boss; his executive committee had bestowed the tournament on this country, and now when he was here, everybody had to scurry. His status meant that he was routinely accommodated in luxury like the Emirates Palace Hotel, which has suites for presidents and princes; he would be met in a limousine at the airport, and never leave air-conditioning during his stay. One of those whose job it was to give a positive account of Fifa's work and its people said Blazer was a football enthusiast who worked very hard–which did seem to be true–and even suggested his weight may have been due to some kind of illness, rather than a propensity to overindulge at a buffet. There was just one member of the entourage who could not help but articulate the thoughts of the honest child seeing through the emperor's fine clothes, and he muttered, out of the corner of his mouth, that Blazer was an odd sight to be the public face of promoting the world's greatest sport.

In my work up to then I had dug predominantly into English football, the Premier League club 'owners' who had previously been termed 'custodians'; their great commercial carve-up for their clubs and the FA's modern inadequacy in restraining it. This journey of investigation had led me into discovering and understanding the historic origins of football itself, and that the owners' modern banking of vast personal profits was indeed as it felt: contrary to the traditions and ethos insisted upon for a century by the FA. The governing body had from the beginning sought to incorporate core sporting values for its game, before the FA was finally overwhelmed in the new moneyed era and lost administrative clarity.

I had learned that the roots of the modern, refined, global sport were indeed in the rough folk games which English villagers used to battle over in the Middle Ages, literally fighting to carry a ball miles into the 'goal' of forcing it into the opposition territory. Some of these muddy, heaving, steaming free-for-alls survive today, most famously the Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday sprawls between the 'Up'ards' and 'Down'ards', across fields, a river and through the town of Ashbourne, in Derbyshire. The phrase 'local derby', for near-neighbours clenched in an intense rivalry, derives from the grapples of old between two parishes, All Saints and St Peter's, in the city of Derby.

These battles had been gradually shaped into more recognisable tests of athleticism and skill in the 1840s, the civilising years of the English public–in fact fee-paying, private–schools, while farmworkers and country labourers were being crammed into mines, mills and factories in smog-filled new industrial cities. When the public schoolboys left for university, work or the army, they wanted to continue playing the games, so the early clubs were formed.


  • "[Conn's] study of Sepp Blatter and other football officials is full of startling material and has cumulative power."—The Guardian
  • "Conn left no stone unturned, skillfully re-creating a time line of the corruption that threatened the very integrity of the game. His meticulous research and smooth writing style bring this unseemly chapter in FIFA history to a close, with realistic hope for the future of the most popular sport on earth....This is the conclusive account of the recent international FIFA scandal. As we look ahead to the 2018 World Cup, this is also a timely reminder that money and power are always a threat to high ideals in sports."—Library Journal
  • "When an award-winning journalist like David Conn speaks, you listen. When Conn writes a book, you read it. That's certainly the case with The Fall of the House of FIFA....It's easily the most comprehensive text ever written with regards to the history of FIFA and the recent corruption scandal that rocked the world's most popular sport.....This book is incredibly enjoyable, an experience you won't soon forget. It's a must-read for any soccer fan or even those interested in sports business or old-fashioned investigative journalism. You can't go wrong with this one!"—International Soccer Network
  • "[Conn's] book shows that the saga of world soccer's governing body since the 1970s has foreshadowed geopolitical shifts, notable the waning of the political and economic dominance of the West."—The New York Reviewof Books

On Sale
Jun 20, 2017
Page Count
336 pages
Bold Type Books

David Conn

About the Author

David Conn is the author of The Beautiful Game and an award-winning journalist for the Guardian where he has been a key part of the coverage of the FIFA crisis.

Learn more about this author