FIFA and Arms Dealers Corrupting the Beautiful Game

Written by Martin Butcher, Policy Advisor on Arms and Conflict at Oxfam International

A big win in Sweden

I was angry as I sat down to watch the sublime skills of Lionel Messi and his Barcelona team mates in the Champions League Final, knowing that football and my work on the arms trade had become linked in the corruption row bringing down FIFA executives.

The massive news of FBI investigation of FIFA, the arrest of senior officials and tens of millions of dollars in bribes has rocked the world of football. The global headlines have been staggering as each day brings new revelations of sordid dealings at the heart of the ‘beautiful game’.

In some ways this should not be a surprise. Respected research group Transparency International has identified no less than 29 different forms of corruption in the international trade in arms, many of which are to do with peddling influence. And that’s exactly what the German government stands accused of.

German newspaper Die Zeit has suggested that Germany helped buy the 2006 World Cup through arms sales to Saudi Arabia. In 2000, during bidding for the 2006 competition, South Africa was the front runner. Competition to host the tournament was intense. At the last minute, some unexplained activity led to Germany winning the crucial vote 12-11. A week before the key vote, Germany reversed policy toward Saudi Arabia and agreed the sale of rocket propelled grenades to the kingdom. Die Zeit alleges this was a decision by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schroder, at the request of the Deutscher Fussball Bund, to influence votes in FIFA.

No-one outside FIFA and the German government knew of this scandal while watching England crash out on penalties to Portugal – as I did in a bar in Washington DC. And it wasn’t even the first time football had been linked to arms and conflict. In 1969, tensions over between El Salvador and Honduras led to La Guerra de Futbol when a World Cup qualifying defeat sparked fighting. And football has previously been linked to arms trading too.

England fans, me included, were mystified when the England team flew off to Saudi Arabia for a friendly in November 1988. No-one could understand playing such a game so far away during a short international break from the domestic league. Players were exhausted and the match was a pitiful draw, with England playing especially badly. The whole episode almost cost then-manager Bobby Robson his job with British tabloids screaming ‘GO in the name of Allah GO’.

Years later, in the book The Politics of British Arms Sales Since 1964: ‘to Secure Our Rightful Share’, Mark Phythian reports that the England team flew to Saudi Arabia to play that friendly as a condition for the agreement of the Al Yamamah II arms deal – part of the most lucrative ever agreements in British arms dealing history, deals that continue to this day. It quotes then-FA Chief Executive Graham Kelly as saying “We are more than happy to assist the government to fulfil its contractual obligations to Saudi Arabia”.

I’ve enjoyed watching football since the 1960s, have played (badly) or coached kids (much better at that) in England, Belgium, France and the US.

My career in arms control and disarmament has taken me to these countries, but the lifting of the lid on FIFA’s corruption has linked my hobby and my career in ways I never wanted to see. If the UK, Germany and other States Party to the Arms Trade Treaty respect obligations to transparency, human rights and international humanitarian law in future deals, this corruption of ‘the beautiful game’ by the arms trade will become a thing of the past.

Martin Butcher is the Policy Advisor on Arms and Conflict at Oxfam International. He acts as Oxfam’s lead on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), related arms trade issues, and on arms aspects of crises. Follow him on Twitter @ButcherMartin.

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