Heavy Lies the Crown
He stared impassively at the drink in front of him.
There would be no off-the-cuff remarks today, no jokes to lighten the mood and no discussions with his aides tonight. Facing one of the biggest challenges to his 17-year reign at the very top of his field, he found the pleasant summer breeze that night in May to be of little comfort. It was lonely at the top, but the view had always been great.
Not anymore. The whispers against him had grown louder, and a younger challenger less than half his age had now thrown his name into the ring. It is a tale eternal; a king has his reign and then he dies. But he was no ordinary king, and his was not going to be an ordinary end.
For a man used to running soccer’s (or football’s) governing body like a personal fiefdom with little oversight and opposition, any challenge to his position was a grave threat. In a nation famed for its neutrality, this 79-year old man was getting ready for war – not without a touch of irony. Despite all his power and wealth, he felt an unfamiliar sense of desperation gnawing at him.
The silence of the night was punctured by the sound of bells chiming in the distance. Sepp Blatter thought they sounded ominous.
When Pigs Fly
On the other side of the world, Romero awoke with a start. It was only dawn, but he had slept longer than he expected to. It was an important day, and he had sorely needed that headstart. Preferably one that would not involve waking up the rest of his family. Life was tough for hog farmers like Romero and others in the agriculture business in The Philippines.
Romero enjoyed the occasional soccer game in his youth, but the sport could very well have been the last thing on his mind that morning. He was meeting with a loan officer at a local microfinance institution, and waiting for a decision had not been easy on Romero. He needed a grand sum of $175 to expand his fledgling hog farming business.
He began to question whether he had done a great enough job convincing the microfinance institution his ambitions and business were viable. They seemed like they genuinely cared, but Romero knew the decision would come down to financial considerations and bottom-lines. For all his worries and woes, and unlike Sepp Blatter on the other side of the world, he felt a familiar sense of calm.
The silence of the dawn was caressed by the sound of bells chiming in the distance. Romero thought the bells were a good sign.
Romero and Blatter had never met, and almost certainly never will. And yet they had something in common. They didn’t know it then, but football was about to change both their lives.
Kizazi – Fate and Fortune
Two years ago, Franco Silva was all set to graduate from the premier Tufts University, in Massachusetts. With medical school beckoning, the world was virtually at his feet: a metaphor the collegiate soccer player would have found appropriate.
But then a month before his graduation, fate intervened. A serious leg injury put his medical school plans on hold, as he watched the application cycle go by. Even worse, that lifelong dream of competitive soccer at the highest levels had now been extinguished. Silva had always been sure that soccer was going to play a part in his life, but suddenly it had become increasingly hard to see how.
It was while recuperating that the young Mexican, Silva, vociferously read stories of inspirational leaders: people who’d refused to accept their lot in life, and decided to chart their own path. A competitive career in a sport followed by 3.5 billion people was always going to be a tough ask, with the sheer number of hopefuls longing for a break, enough to deter those of us with weaker wills.
But perhaps there was a way to turn soccer’s massive following and reach into a competitive advantage? As it turns out, Franco found the answer off the field, and not on it. If fate had intervened to deny him what he wanted, he was going to use fate and fortune to give others what they wanted.
Aid can be a massive boon for millions of underprivileged people around the world, during times of desperation. But the mass influx of goods, clothing and food, in non-emergency situations can also suppress local innovation, and fledgling local businesses. What those communities needed, was for budding businesses or business ideas to be given a shot at writing their own destiny, instead of falling victim to fate and their lack of fortune. Silva was determined to do something to change the fate of someone on the other side of the world, but he was going to need help.
The answer had been right in front of him, all along. It was a ball. Simple. Unpretentious. But when kicked around, it became a symbol of a religion celebrated around the world. And thus Kizazi came to be.
As a very young start-up, Kizazi offers its first product of many to come – a soccer ball, but one fashioned with the highest manufacturing and ethical standards as certified by Fairtrade International. The ball itself has won many fans for its improved control and flight stability, and the model – with its commitment to diverting almost a third of all profits to micro-lending initiatives around the world, and its studious avoidance of child labor and sweatshops – is winning even more.
Kizazi relies on the world-famous non-profit company Kiva’s extensive network of micro finance institutions to reach those willing to stand up and fight to improve their lives, and by extension that of their family and community. Silva and his team are currently fighting a battle to reach critical mass before they can expand their lending aims. But perhaps unbeknownst even to them, they’re also fighting a greater battle.
A grassroots battle to improve the horribly tainted image of soccer as a sport capable of driving immense and tangible change, with a potential army of 3.5 billion people armed with nothing more than a wallet and a desire to help someone else take a shot on goal. One deserving loan recipient at a time.
Back in the Philippines, it took Romero – the hog farmer – a second or two to truly absorb the moment. The loan officer at the micro-lending institution had just told him he was approved. As he signed the necessary papers, his mind immediately raced to the future. He strode out of the office nervously clutching the princely loan that had been made to him.
Romero knows the loan was made in good faith, and while he does not understand the path the long arm of generosity – that has stretched from Houston, Texas – has taken to reach him, he is nevertheless grateful at being given a shot at his new goal. The $175 loan amount made to him by Kizazi, through Kiva acting through a local micro-finance lender, will be sufficient to let him buy two piglets for his farm.
But for now, there was something else on his mind. Romero was going home to wake his kids up with good news.
Words and Bonds
Back in Kizazi’s offices, there is no fear that Romero might be unable to pay. Silva doesn’t need Kiva to assure him that 98% of microloans are paid back. Silva also knows Romero’s ability, as Kizazi’s first beneficiary, to repay his loan will make or break his model, but there is no anxiety on his face.
For there is an unspoken bond between entrepreneurs; a pride in paying back what one owes. Silva knows Romero, and the others Kizazi lends to, will come through. It is through their return that the Kizazi fund will grow.
The End of an Era
. Sepp Blatter smiles, more out of relief than happiness. After the closest vote in decades, Sepp Blatter’s election rival, the younger Prince Ali of Jordan announced his withdrawal from the 2015 FIFA Presidential Election. Blatter has survived, it would seem, despite the mounting allegations of corruption and financial impropriety under his reign.
But the cracks have begun to show. Blatter’s failure to win the necessary two-thirds majority is a sign he is no longer indispensable to the body, and to the sport. In his bid to hold on to his throne, the king’s crown had slipped. There was blood in the water, and rather than fall prey to others more bloodthirsty than he, Blatter called time out.
A few days later, on June 2nd, Blatter announced his resignation, but offered to stay in office until a successor was chosen in an extraordinary session possibly in early 2016. Blatter was confident he had headed off his inevitable end.
That joy would prove to be transient, and fleeting. As Blatter flirted with the idea of staying on, Swiss investigators announced a criminal investigation targeting him and his associates. As his empire unraveled, it was his own organization that dealt the fatal blow. FIFA announced it was suspending him for 90 days.
FIFA has stumbled from one financial scandal to another, and has demeaned the sport. The culture of corruption and crime at the highest circles of soccer, had finally come crumbling down. But the damage it has done to the sport, and the integrity of its governing body will take a long time to mend. Any lasting change to the game’s image will not come from the top. Sepp Blatter’s replacement will likely be someone cut from the same cloth, and with years of experience drinking from the same trough.
The beautiful game deserves better, and Kizazi is a bold bet that the renewal and renaissance FIFA, and the game needs, is one where ordinary consumers of the sport restore the image of the game, using its immense reach to deliver financial solace to anyone willing to take charge of their lives and communities.
This December, Sepp Blatter will begin the final month of his humiliating suspension from office, staring at an uncertain future after his latest entreaty to FIFA’s appeals committee was rejected. Halfway across the globe, this December will hold special significance for Romero too. It will mark the month he makes the last installment of his loan repayment.
Thanks to the likes of Kizazi, soccer is being redefined. One kick at a time.