For a sports fan of a certain age, the summer of 2015 has had rather a depressing feel to it. Not so much on account of any particular events that have taken place out on the field of play, but more for what has been transpiring off it. Over the last few months some of the great sporting icons of our times have had their reputations at best slightly tarnished, and at worst potentially ruined by the stain of corruption that they either saw fit to overlook as administrators or, even worse, may well have indulged in themselves.
That sporting superstars appear to have been caught indulging in skulduggery is particularly depressing when one remembers the style, grace and class that they themselves oozed out on the sports field. Many a football fan will recall Michel Platini scoring nine goals (the second top scorer in the tournament managed only three) whilst leading France to the 1984 European Championship. The doyen of French football, the star of the 1984 side, is now suspended from his current position as president of UEFA, European football’s governing body, pending the outcome of allegations that FIFA president Sepp Blatter made a ‘disloyal payment’ of £1.6m to him. Regardless of the outcome, Platini’s chances of succeeding Blatter as FIFA president now appear to be slim.
Falls from riches to rags can also be told in the world’s second most popular sport, cricket. Chris Cairns, the swashbuckling former Wisden Cricketer of the Year (2000) and prodigious six-hitter, is currently standing trial in London accused of both fixing the results of matches and perjury. The days when he could lay claim to being the best all round cricketer on the planet seem but a distant memory. He’ll do well to avoid spending the foreseeable future in jail.
If the affairs of Platini and Cairns were not enough to force the greying sports fan in to a mild state of depression, things got even worse this week. Sebastian Coe, current head of track and field’s IAAF, former Rolls Royce middle distance runner and double Olympic gold medallist, found himself fending off accusations that he turned a blind eye to accusations of systemic corruption in his sport. The fact that he originally described the German TV documentary that unearthed the doping scandals as a “declaration of war” and then failed to immediately acknowledge the need to implement the recommendations of a report in to the programme’s claims bodes ill. Coe has only been in the job since August, but already he finds himself having to do a lot of soul-searching about how he and his organisation have dealt with these corruption allegations. Coe’s task now is nothing less than to save his sport’s soul.
But in many ways the most surprising, and the most disappointing, allegation of corruption – for this sports fan at least – stemmed from Germany. For the best part of 50 years German football has been epitomised by the performances, the style and the all-round panache of ‘Der Kaiser’, Franz Beckenbauer. Not only did he lead West Germany to a World Cup triumph on the field in 1974, he coached soon-to-be-unified Germany to another triumph in 1990. His Bayern Munich side won the European Cup three times back-to-back in the 1970s and he became the first German ever to play 100 times for his country. Furthermore, he also went on to be president of the organising committee of the 2006 World Cup, a hugely successful tournament held in his homeland.
Beckenbauer’s career could not have been more star-studded. He became the epitome, at home and abroad, of German football. Yet now even he is on the verge of being brought down by corruption allegations. Beckenbauer, so we discovered this week, signed a deal with the now disgraced Jack Warner, a former FIFA top executive promising him that German football would deliver “various services”. There is no evidence that cash ever changed hands, but there is evidence that these “services” were to include support for the football federation that Warner led (CONCACAF), the possibility of Germany playing friendly games at times and in places that suited Warner’s interests and also of making sure that Warner received tickets to World Cup games. Plus, crushingly, all of this was being talked about just four days before Warner cast his vote to decide which country should host the 2006 World Cup. As it happens, Warner voted for South Africa, but that didn’t stop Germany winning the nomination by 12 votes to 11. If that sounds like a paradox, on Tuesday Oliver Fritsch reminded readers of Die Zeit that it could well be explained in quite straightforward fashion; the South Africans simply promised greater rewards than the Germans did.
There is no evidence that the agreement was actually carried out. Indeed Beckenbauer, as was noted in the deal, didn’t actually have the authority to promise all of the things noted in the contract. But that attempts were made to even think about a deal like this needs, at the very least, the Kaiser to come forward and explain what exactly was going on. As things stand, Beckenbauer has done no such thing. Throw in the fact that an unexplained Euro6.7m slush fund has been discovered and things get even worse. The president of the German Football Federation, Wolfgang Niersbach, has gone on record admitting that it looks like the fund existed to help Germany win the right to host the 2006 tournament. Niersbach, despite claiming to have had no knowledge of the fund until now, has already resigned. Beckenbauer, the man who was right at the coal face as the bid was won, clearly has a significant amount of explaining to do.
In many ways, the words of Alfred Draxler, the former editor of Europe’s biggest newspaper, Bild, and current editor of SportBild, say it all; “I simply could never imagine it. I always believed that we were awarded the 2006 World Cup on the basis of a fair competition. But today I’ve got to report that a contract has been found that looks very much like an attempt to indulge in bribery”. It does indeed appear that even the Kaiser might well be corruptible.
These events won’t see sport vanish from our TV screens. Or indeed suffer much of a reduction in popularity. They certainly won’t see football relegated to the far flung corners of newspapers’ sports sections. But they certainly do make one realise that corruption gets everywhere and that even apparent paragons of virtue can find it either very hard to resist or very hard to face up to. Franz Beckenbauer may come forward and find an elaborate explanation for his actions. I think, given the evidence thus far, he’s got a tough job ahead of him. Which, in so many ways, is one almighty great shame.