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Ancient and modern

Pliny the Younger on Fifa

What he said about corruption still rings true: ‘The most serious diseases are those diffused from the head’

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

In any huge enterprise (like Fifa), where does the rot begin? Pliny the Younger mused on this question in a letter to a friend about a games festival held in the Roman colony Vienna (Vienne, south of Lyons).

Vienna had been celebrating Greek-style gymnastic games as a result of a bequest, when the town’s mayor decided to abolish them; they were corrupting, unlike good, honest Roman games. The case was contested and came before the emperor in Rome, with Pliny one of the assessors. There the mayor, ‘a true Roman and fine citizen’, came out on top. He was supported, Pliny wrote, by one Mauricus, another Roman famed for straight talking. Courageously, in Pliny’s view, Mauricus expressed the opinion that such Greek fripperies had no place in Rome either.

Pliny then gives another example of Mauricus’ courage. He was dining with the emperor Nerva, who seemed to be getting on very well with one Veiento, a state informer with blood on his hands. Conversation turned to the murderous career of the recently dead Messalinus, another informer as bloody as Veiento, and Nerva wondered what he would be doing were he still alive. ‘Dining with us,’ replied Mauricus. Crunch.

That set Pliny reflecting on the bigger picture. Yes, the corrupting Greek games in Vienna had been abolished. But, he went on, at least Vienna’s vices went no further than Vienna. What, however, about Rome’s? Its commitment to Greek-style games spread a more general corruption far and wide: ‘For in our bodies, as in government,’ he concluded, ‘the most serious diseases are those diffused from the head.’

Which brings us back to Fifa. Soccer may not be corrupting per se. But turn it into a multimillion-pound, worldwide empire with wealthy sponsors, an unaccountable head, servile officials and grasping associations far too complicit to boycott it, and Pliny’s parallel rings true. The rot begins at the head. But does Blatter’s resignation change that? No. It was nothing to do with Fifa. It came from external legal pressure. No virtue in that. The jury on Fifa is still out.

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