MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The unflinching support of tiny, developing countries has long been a vital plank of Sepp Blatter’s political base and those in any doubt of the impact of FIFA’s patronage need look no further than the Pacific Island nation of Fiji.
With a population of just 900,000, Fiji is famous for punching above its weight in international rugby but remains a minnow in global soccer, its men’s team a lowly 196th out of the 209 nations in world rankings.
Still, Fijian football officials have beamed with pride this week with their youth team’s debut appearance at the under-20 World Cup tournament in New Zealand.
The achievement in qualifying for the first time has raised hopes of a brighter future for the game in a tropical country long dependent on tourist dollars and foreign aid.
It would also have been unthinkable without FIFA’s financial help in funding development projects, according to Fiji Football Association chief executive Bob Kumar.
“We were very proud because it was the first time in our history that we have qualified at the World Cup level and this will be a push for development and participation,” Kumar told Reuters by telephone after Fiji were trounced 8-1 by Germany in their World Cup opener in Christchurch on Monday.
”We thank FIFA because it’s because of their help with development that we have come all this way.
”It would have been very difficult (without FIFA).
”We wouldn’t have been able to match anything. Our development funds are all dependent on FIFA funding. We are very much dependent on FIFA, about 80 percent.”
Though re-elected for a fifth term in office on Friday, Blatter’s premiership remains under a cloud following the arrests of seven high-ranking soccer officials in Zurich last week on corruption charges.
But the 79-year-old Swiss, who has run FIFA for nearly 20 years despite allegations of corruption from other people associated with the administration, remains determined to ride out the storm.
Blatter’s confidence in his ability to do that will be boosted by the support countries like Fiji have shown in the wake of the bribery allegations which have plunged FIFA into its worst crisis in 111 years.
“We do support FIFA and we support Blatter,” Kumar said, adding that he had “no concerns” about the game’s global governance or that corruption might be undermining it.
“We’re quite happy with what’s going on. FIFA is helping quite a bit to the development of other countries and we support Blatter in that area.”
Four years ago, Fiji’s former FA chief Sahu Khan showed his loyalty to Blatter in 2011 when British delegates tried to delay the Swiss’s uncontested election in the wake of allegations of impropriety surrounding the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Khan, a former member of FIFA’s all-powerful executive committee and deputy chairman of its ethics committee, delivered a 15-minute speech urging the rubber-stamp vote to go ahead.
Since, Fiji has applied for and received development grants of over $2 million, including a $500,000 upgrade to facilities at its national soccer academy in Suva.
Lawyer Khan, however, was disbarred by Fiji legal authorities for professional misconduct soon after the 2011 election and later stripped of his soccer roles.
Another $500,000 has been approved, but not yet paid, for a technical facility as part of FIFA’s Goal program, a fund for soccer development projects.
”We are now in the process of getting another academy in the north island (Vanua Levu) in Labasa,“ Kumar said. ”We are now negotiating on the land and everything else but the funding has been approved by FIFA. It’ll be US$500,000. It’s very, very handy.”
Former FIFA vice-president Mohamed Bin Hammam was head of Goal’s committee until he was banned for life in 2011 amid bribery allegations.
Among the many accusations dogging the Qatari power-broker was that he improperly diverted funds from the program to projects in sympathetic nations to boost his influence.
Fiji, however, points to its under-20 team as a sign of money well-spent.
“We look forward to getting more and more,” said Kumar.
Additional reporting by Patrick Johnston; Editing by Julian Linden