FIFA on Film

Hagiography has been a consummate skill in the sport-writing world, with ghost writers or tame official chroniclers portraying the lives of superstars or characters and celebrities who have illuminated the humdrum lives of we the fans or less blessed followers for whom the sporting champion can represent some vicarious sense of the heroic. There's been a tradition to this in popular cultural writing since consumer culture began from the beginning of the 20th century to profile movie stars, singers, sportsmen and women. But you usually had to show something of the exceptional to hold the audience; the sporting heroic was rooted in a real achievement and sustained excellence.

Managers, impresarios, and administrators have provided less fertile ground for such myth-making, though hugely successful individuals combining success with longevity can generate strong sales figures; a case in mind is Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson’s autobiography, crafted by award-winning sports journalist Paul Hayward. Illuminating – though not always reliable – memoirs have also been produced by pioneers of sport administration, including Stanley Rous’s Football Worlds: A Lifetime in Sport (London, Faber and Faber, 1978). And figures who led the modern Olympic movement or football's world-governing body FIFA have not been averse to publications reflecting on the grandeur of their status and their claims as to their world-historical significance. David Miller’s Olympic Revolution: The Authorised Biography of Juan Antonio Samaranch (London, published by glamour publisher Pavilion Books,1992) charted the impact of Samaranch, former Fascist careerist and Francoist before becoming IOC president in 1980 and led the ‘Olympic Movement’ for 21 years, through a couple of expansionist, controversial and in part corruption-stained decades – though much of the political detail of Samaranch’s past was filtered out of Miller’s narrative. In my books on FIFA I have cited the shameless encomium to Brazilian João Havelange, FIFA president for 24 years, that was written with the title Young Havelange: FIFA in the Third Millennium (edited by E.J. Farah, published in São Paulo by J.S. Propaganda, 1996), relating the visionary transformative effect of the virile Brazilian businessman's presidential reign from 1974, a period of power unopposed  through five re-election campaigns up to his withdrawal from the Presidency in 1998.

But no commission, no vanity project of hagiographic commissioning, has rivalled the project of current FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in the film United Passions, launched at a special screening at the Cannes film festival in May, purportedly to be screened in Serbia during the current World Cup. Blatter has been in FIFA – as development officer, general secretary/chief executive, then president as Havelange's successor – since 1975. Scheming his way through the FIFA Congress in São Paulo last week, mustering crony votes for yet another shot at the presidency that would take him comfortably into his 80s, Blatter has initiated a movie covering the history and story of FIFA in which Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs star Tim Roth plays Blatter himself, Sam Neill plays Havelange, and Russian tax exile Gérard Depardieu plays Jules Rimet, whose name was given to the first World Cup in 1930, and who presided over FIFA for a third of a century from 1921 to 1954. Blustering Depardieu is a comic-book depiction of the French Christian idealist who got FIFA off to a properly international – if not always internationalist – start. Sam Neill as Havelange leers arrogantly and imperiously over the emerging global football market, as Blatter comes to be warned, by an attractive young female adviser, that some dodgy practices under his own administrative watch may come to haunt him, even lead to criminal conviction and imprisonment, if he doesn't ride to the rescue of the burgeoning organisation with a reforming agenda.

The cost of this movie comes on the whole from FIFA coffers. The FIFA Executive Committee won't have been consulted about this, and as FIFA closes ranks whilst the World Cup matches provide the fans and the sponsors with the thrills and the stories, United Passions has a small niched Eastern European showing well away from the action. Even Blatter, keeping a low profile with no speeches at the opening ceremony/match in São Paulo, may suspect that this laughable film project is best put to one side. Or perhaps he's warming up to commission a follow-up, a retirement tribute with Tim Roth getting still more gangster-like, Tarantino at the directorial helm, guaranteeing a laugh-a-minute for film reviewers and sport journalists alike, weren't the issues of FIFA accountability, transparency and integrity not so significant and serious.