Recently, soccer fans all over the world were impressed to learn that United Passions, a FIFA-financed movie about how wonderful FIFA is starring Gérard Depardieu, Sam Neill, and Tim Roth, had pulled in $200,000 at the box office since it premiered at Cannes in May. This sum may be a bit less than the film's budget—$31 million, reportedly—but if you assume that an average ticket costs $10, its take suggests that something like 20,000 people were willing to pay to see it. That's quite a lot more than you'd expect, given that that this is a FIFA-financed movie (over which Sepp Blatter apparently had script approval!) about how wonderful FIFA is, and after I learned how surprisingly popular it was, I decided I had to see it for myself. After a bit of finagling, I was able to do so, and here are some of the things I learned.
If you look at the photo at the top of this post, you'll see a pair of Europeans explaining to a minion of the head of the English Football Association that they want to advance the cause of soccer and the brotherhood of man by having the F.A. join their international association of associations. The minion isn't having any of it, and after he tells them to go away, his boss, Mr. Peanut, takes a break from heckling soccer players to ask what "those blasted frogs" wanted.
"Oh, nothing important, sir," says the minion. "They want to run the world of football, sir, in place of us."
"Haw haw haw!" says Mr. Peanut, while fiddling with his monocle. "How ridiculous! What do foreigners understand of our beautiful game?"
Englishmen being cartoonishly villainous, as opposed to the high-minded cosmopolitans who run FIFA, is something of a motif in United Passions.
At one point, Jules Rimet, the third president of FIFA, explains that there should be a world soccer championship. You might think that this was, conceptually, a somewhat obvious idea, but the guy with the mustache here disagrees.
"He's mad," he says.
"No," says the other guy. "He's a visionary."
Rimet, being a visionary, meets a generous Uruguayan diplomat who has no ulterior motives and just decides to give FIFA a lot of money in exchange for arranging things so that the first World Cup will be held in Montevideo. They hold a party to celebrate, at which an Englishman starts ranting at Rimet's daughter Annette.
"May I say, young lady, that all this makes absolutely no moral sense," he says. "What's the use in organizing a World Cup in the Americas, in a country no one's ever heard of, which is a stranger to modernity? And why not at the tip of Africa with the Zulus while we're at it?"
"Why not indeed? Who knows?" says Annette. "The Zulus may be excellent football players. Maybe they just don't know it yet."
"But young lady," explains the Englishman, "the natives of Africa are stupid and undisciplined. It's just their nature. How could they possibly be expected to appreciate the subtleties of a game invented by the whites?"
"She understands nothing about the game of football," he complains to Rimet. "She's under the impression that Negroes could compete with whites at the sport!"
"Really?" says Rimet.
"Yes, you should send her back to her sewing and the art of good housekeeping. Her pretty little head would be filled with less nonsense ... Haw! Negroes playing football! Why not women while we're at it? Now that would be quite amusing! Haw! Quite amusing!"
Rimet, of course, tells him off.
At one point, Rimet is holding a meeting with the representatives of various soccer associations when they start talking about the possibility of European war.
"We should have nothing to fear," says one of them, "now our headquarters are in Zurich!"
"Thank God Switzerland is neutral!" says another.
"Yes," says a dismayed Rimet. "Stuck between Hitler and Mussolini, who are as thick as thieves." The Italian representative, like the evil Nazi sitting across the table from him, is ... displeased.
"Careful," he says.
"Why?" Rimet shouts. "The fascist doctrines are the complete opposite of our federations!"
United Passions skips more or less entirely over the reign of the Englishman Stanley Rous as the head of FIFA, but he does turn up at a party to insult and be insulted by his own successor, João Havelange. Having just lost an election to Havelange, Rous—the more Waldorf-looking of the Statler and Waldorf-type pair of evil Englishmen here—tells him that he's opened Pandora's box by relying on Africans for political support. ("Those people," he sniffs, "will never understand the subtleties of football.")
"The future of our sport lies in Africa, and in Asia, and America," Havelange tells him, "and if you cannot see that, I cannot help you."
The way movies work, when Sepp Blatter pulls into a gas station to have a surreptitious meeting, you'd assume nothing good is going to go down. In this case, though, it just turns out that Blatter—previously seen apparently inventing the concept of sponsorship in the course of making a deal with Coca-Cola—and a representative of Adidas are having a totally above-board meeting about the various ways in which Adidas can help promote soccer around the world and help FIFA do good things.
Later, Blatter goes to Ethiopia and sees some kids learning how to play in their Adidas-branded kit, drinking refreshing Coca-Cola products. He knows he's just pushing too hard for these kids, but by God, no one's going to stop him.
FIFA can get along with military dictators because FIFA is like Muhammad Ali and is basically about world peace
There is a point in this movie at which Havelange and Blatter—still a mere FIFA bureaucrat—have a mild disagreement about the 1978 World Cup, what with host Argentina being in the grip of a repressive military government that is murdering and torturing its own citizens. Blatter has some misgivings, but Havelange is able to explain the higher purpose of FIFA working with people who kidnap the children of their enemies and raise them as their own.
"The Argentine Mundial," Havelange explains, "will be a great opportunity for all of Latin America. Now, the press go on and on about dictatorships and political prisoners and so on, but as soon as the game kicks off, things change."
"Sponsors are nervous," says Blatter. "There are human right violations involved. If they're exposed ..."
"These events, they take place so far from Europe. Now, the intellectuals can protest as much as they like with their banners and their tracts and speeches, but then what? Nothing. It's forgotten. Those are the people, those. And amongst them, who knows? Communists, fascists, who cares? But during the World Cup, they only dream of one thing. That ball. And only that ball. Because football brings consolation to all tragedies and sorrows.
"Now. The people—they need hope. They need heroes to survive. Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, not to mention Pelé. These people have done more for the black cause than any politician. And the World Cups that we organize do more for world peace than any U.N. resolution."
Here we see Blatter—at this point Havelange's No. 2—having lunch with a friend. He's worried, distracted; his friend wants to know what's wrong.
"Talk to me, Sepp."
"A while ago when it was time to pay our personnel, the accountant announced that there was nothing left in the coffers. Havelange wouldn't take my call."
"And I signed a personal check for two hundred thousand Swiss francs."
"But it was that or they weren't getting paid. I mean, can you imagine what the press would have done with a story like that? Worst of it is, I don't know where the money's gone. I mean I have my suspicions, but I can't be certain."
It's hard to be Sepp Blatter—a man who just cares too much.
After being elected president of FIFA, Blatter calls together all the FIFA higher-ups to tell them what for. There have been some irregularities, after all—hints that not everyone is as honest and incorruptible as he is.
"Now, the next tournament will take place in both South Korea and Japan, far from Europe" he tells the assembled big-wigs. "Some of you may feel that this is a good opportunity to close lucrative deals with certain lobbies. Think again. No sport is spotless; there is just a lot more money involved in ours, which is why from now on we will be exemplary in all respects. The slightest breach of ethics will be severely punished."
The assembled bureaucrats, who for whatever reason just happen to have some attractive Adidas and Coca-Cola products laying around, say things like "Haw haw! Is that a threat, Mr. President?" and "President Havelange would have never dared to treat us with such utter contempt," to which the imperturbable Blatter has a reasonable comeback:
"Well, maybe he should have."
"Is no longer president. I am. João Havelange presided over our family for 24 years. Did he make mistakes? Perhaps. It's not for me to judge. But I am warning you—all of you. We will play by my rules now. Gentlemen."
The nature of Havelange's ... mistakes is never exactly spelled out. Neither, really, are any accusations against Blatter. But one of his minions, late in the movie, demands to know something from him: "When are you going to do something to defend yourself?"
"I've done nothing that merits defense," says Blatter. Still, he meets his old mentor Havelange on a boat and learns that you have to blackmail and threaten your enemies to keep power.
After this, there is a scene where Blatter refuses to resign his presidency. As the movie ends, he is reelected to his job in Seoul, South Korea as triumphant music plays.
It's quite a movie!