Four years ago, in a bit to cleanse football’s rotting heart, an organisation called ChangeFIFA looked to a former Chilean defender for guidance and leadership. Elias Figueroa played three World Cups (1966, ’74 and ’82), and was feted as one of the most accomplished centre-backs of his generation. His elegant, composed playing style meant that comparisons with Franz Beckenbauer were frequent, though Nelson Rodrigues, the celebrated Brazilian playwright, was one of those that thought the Chilean was even better.
Chile’s players Arturo Vidal (centre) and Marcelo Diaz (right) take part in a training session in Santiago during the Copa America on Saturday. Pic/AFP
In the 1970s, when Figueroa was playing for Internacional in Brazil, Rodrigues wrote that he was “an earl dressed in suit, and dangerous as a Bengal Tiger. Elias Figueroa was the perfect defender.”
Three decades later, with many in despair at the direction that FIFA was taking -- Russia had won the right to host the 2018 World Cup, and Qatar the competition four years later, after bidding processes marred by constant talk of rampant corruption -- the beautiful game looked to one of its most handsome practitioners.
After flirting with the idea, Figueroa turned down the chance to challenge Sepp Blatter’s leadership, saying: “In such a short period of time, I could not develop a case worthy of the magnitude and importance of such a distinguished job.”
Since then, South America has hosted a World Cup, won by a European team, and been at the heart of the corruption investigations that finally brought down the Blatter Empire. It was in early 2013 that FIFA’s own Ethics Committee started probing illegal payments that International Sports and Leisure (ISL) — once the organisation’s marketing arm -- had made to officials before it folded in 2001.
There was no proof of Blatter being involved, but those implicated read like a Who’s Who of FIFA’s senior management. João Havelange, who had been in the top job between 1974 and 1998, had to quit his position as honorary president, while Ricardo Teixeira, another Brazilian who had once been Havelange’s son-in-law, was also found guilty. Paraguay’s Dr Nicolas Leoz was another vastly influential member of the Executive Committee to fall foul of the investigation.
When Argentina’s Julio Grondona died last July, it precipitated a distasteful campaign to pin all the misdeeds to his door. Grondona, who was installed by the military junta in 1979, was certainly no saint, but he was by no means alone when it came to lining his pockets.
That so many South Americans have been named in the scandal is indicative of the state of the game on the continent. Argentina did reach the World Cup final in Brazil last year, but football across the continent is in a mess. The best young players leave for Europe even before they’re established in first XIs, and there is mayhem on the terraces -- a state of affairs worsened by the sheer ineptitude of administrators with few interests outside of large-scale corruption.
Despite the chaos around them, the continent’s players continue to excel at the very highest level. Take the Champions League final played on June 6. Juventus, who endured final heartbreak for the sixth time, had Arturo Vidal (Chile) and Carlos Tevez (Argentina) in their line-up, while Barcelona’s defence contained Javier Mascherano (Argentina) and Dani Alves (Brazil). Up front, one of the most vaunted strike forces the sport has ever seen comprised an Argentina (Lionel Messi), a Brazilian (Neymar) and a Uruguayan (Luis Suarez).
Messi, orchestrator supreme, didn’t score, but the other two did in a 3-1 victory. The World Cup bite on Giorgio Chiellini means that Suarez will miss the Copa America, but the other six South Americans that played in Berlin will be central to their nations’ chances of success. Once again, football is looking to Chile for some succour.
After the tawdry tales of the past month, the focus needs to shift, however temporarily, from brown-paper envelopes and illegal wire transfers to football itself. The Copa America, a competition that predates the World Cup by 14 years, offers that short-term distraction.
Argentina will want to go one better than they did in Brazil last year, while the Seleção must atone for the 7-1 humiliation against Germany in a home semi-final. Uruguay, who won for a record 15th time four years ago, won’t have the same edge without Suarez, while Colombia haven’t reached the final since 2001.
Chile, the hosts, have never won it, but with Alexis Sanchez and Vidal in their prime, Jorge Sampaoli’s team could go where even Figueroa and his teammates couldn’t.
Dileep Premachandran is Wisden India’s editor-in-chief