In 2016, football faces a balancing act that will shape the sport's future
Four days before Christmas, FIFA's ethics committee suspended president Sepp Blatter and UEFA president Michel Platini for eight years. The two were banned for a conflict of interest in a two million Swiss franc (£1.35 million) payment deal that is also the subject of a criminal investigation in Switzerland. It's the type of backroom deal that was the hallmark of Blatter's terrible 17-year reign, the most notable part of which might have been the awarding of the World Cup to Russia and Qatar in 2018 and 2022, decisions mired in claims of corruption in the bidding process.
For the moment, Qatar 2022 will take place in a desert fiefdom with only 278,000 citizens and more than a million "expatriate laborers" -- can't wait to see which 11 of them get to play Germany. The shadow darkening football will stretch over it until then, at least. Even so, 2016 has the chance to prove a fate-changing year and maybe the most pivotal in the history of the modern game. All we need football to do is save itself and then save the world.
It's too much to hope the election of a new president on Feb. 26 will remedy everything about FIFA's sick culture. New doesn't necessarily equal clean. Platini was considered a serious potential successor before his own ban; in 2011, then-challenger, Mohamed bin Hammam, was suspended by the FIFA ethics committee for allegations of bribery that included handing out $40,000 in cash bribes to officials in each of 24 Caribbean soccer nations during his campaign visit to Trinidad. Corruption at FIFA has reached a level at which not only individuals are suspect, but also the entire system is pretty plainly built on a foundation of dirt.
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For the first time since 1998, however, Blatter will not sit on top of the pile. With U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch given several more months on FIFA's case and Swiss authorities showing eagerness to keep raiding Zurich's luxurious Baur Au Lac hotel, there is real potential for things to be happier than they used to be. "Better Than Blatter" might not seem like the most inspiring rallying cry, but for fans of international football, those three words sound a lot like release. When the postponed bid process for the 2026 World Cup resumes, we will probably see it go to a country that can grow grass.
Football's potential makes Blatter's reign all the more appalling. He was entrusted to care for the single sport that unites the globe. We talk all the time about the virtues of the games we play, but football is the one that can most truly be seen as a possible instrument of peace. It is the only sport that can make billions of us stop and both remember the best and forget the worst of who and what we are. In the right hands, football's powers might be limitless.
First, however, football will have to endure a far more ruthless campaign. On June 10, Euro 2016 will open when France hosts Romania at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, the same stadium that was targeted by suicide bombers during the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, which were timed for that night's France-Germany friendly. More European friendlies were canceled in the aftermath. It's not pleasant to think terrorists are poring over the same schedules fans consult to map out their dreams, but it would be naïve to think they aren't. We live in a world where some plans are more sinister than others.
We also live in a world where good still withstands evil most of the time. It isn't always easy to remember that, but football fans are given more reminders than most. Hundreds of stadiums all over the world fill and empty without incident, and our game remains as beautiful as it ever was.
In 2016 in France, these powers of football will really be tested -- just when the game is finding its fragile, new balance. We don't yet know the names of the men who will be charged with restoring the integrity of football's governing bodies, but we do know England will play Russia in Marseille, Belgium will play Italy in Lyon and Austria will play Hungary in Bordeaux. We know the two best teams out of 24 will meet July 10, back in nervous, defiant Saint-Denis, for the final.
On that summer night, it won't be up to FIFA's president to dictate football's future. As was the case often in 2015, and as is the case with so many of our resolutions about how this new year will unfold, it will be up to us to choose how we might best express our beliefs, allegiances and loves. It will be up to us to decide which side we are on and how we will fight for it.
Chris Jones is a senior writer for ESPN. He is also a Writer at Large for Esquire. Follow him on Twitter @MySecondEmpire