I have always followed the career of the actor Sam Neill with interest. It started in physics class in my early teens, when Neill presented a series of to be honest quite bad educational physics videos. Then I noticed that he was in an obscure TV show my dad had just got on DVD about spies in central Asia at the end of the 19th century. Then I remembered that he was in Jurassic Park.
My impression of Neill is that he's a mediocre but quite funny journeyman, willing to sell whatever talent he has for whatever money is available. A sort of sane, under control Nicholas Cage. Given his latest project, this image has never seen more appropriate. Neill is starring in a film about the history of Fifa, alongside fellow mercenary Gérard Depardieu, most famous right now for moving from France to Russia to reduce his tax burden. These two actors exist in the rarefied sphere of art, where one would hope that higher motives would transcend rapacity, and have remained shameless mercenaries. So it is appropriate that they should star in a film about Fifa, an organisation that seems increasingly dedicated to exposing itself as a hotbed of greed, corruption and dirty money.
This morning the Sunday Times ran a story that, based on access to a database of leaked emails and other files, alleged that a large number of Fifa officials, as well as members of a number of national FAs, had received various forms of financial incentive from associates of the Qatari World Cup bid in return for their support. This has got to be one of the least surprising revelations ever. It follows allegations from the Telegraph in March about the financial improprieties of Jack Warner, former Fifa vice-president and former president of the CONCACAF, and years of intimations, assumptions and whisperings about a process of World Cup voting that now looks hopelessly corrupt (well summarised here by David Conn).
There are many many many other questions about Fifa's finances. With the growth of global TV markets, the World Cup has started to make the organisation significantly more money. It is not clear what this money is being spent on. Fifa's reserves have risen from $76 million to $1,280 million between 2003 and 2010. Their operating and governance expenses have more than doubled in the same period. These costs include a $200 million new Swiss headquarters and a $65 million annual wage bill for their 387 employees. (All information from this by the Swiss Ramble, who is consistently amongst the most excellent things you will read about football.)
Neill and Depardieu's movie offers, I expect, some clue as to why Fifa's governance expenses are so high. The Guardianreports that £16 million of the film's £19 million budget was funded by Fifa, and that Sepp Blatter himself - whose time is presumably highly valuable and billed at thousands of pounds an hour - made changes to the script. I should be transparent here: I haven't seen the film, only the trailer. But I think it is fair to say that it doesn't look as if United Passions will take a critical view of Fifa's influence in the development of the game. And I don't think it's uncharitable to say that the film looks, for want of a better word, terrible. Terrible isn't even strong enough. I've seen a lot of bad films in my time. This Fifa movie looks to rank somewhere between The Gingerdead Man, Rubber and Titanic in the zero to one out of ten range. Maybe I'm being unfair, but the trailer does include some indicative lines: "If that ball becomes the star, Fifa and Adidas will sign the biggest deal the world's ever seen." (I think it's worth pointing out here that, in a literal sense, there is no way an advertising deal struck 50 years ago for ball sponsorship is or ever was the "biggest" the world had ever seen.) And: "Gentlemen, remember, you're making history." I don't think this line needs any explanatory mocking. Just let it breathe.
Despite all this, I think I might love the film. There's something perfect about it. As far as it is possible to guess at the motivations of the Fifa officials, Blatter included, who funded it, it seems an exercise in glorious vanity. The simplest interpretation is something like 'Fifa think they're great and that they deserve to have a heroic movie made about them', much like King Joffrey thought he was great and commissioned this great statue of himself.
The more cynical interpretation would be that, realising that Fifa was at risk of suffering from negative PR, officials decided to try to rectify this with something more positive. If the film is seen as attempted PR, then it is a beautiful, comic, cruel failure: spending a whole load of money frivolously on a ludicrously positive piece of propaganda starring a bunch of mercenaries is exactly the sort of thing a really corrupt body would do.