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Time For FIFA To Reform: Anger At Soccer’s Governing Body Reaching Tipping Point

fifa logo 600x438 Time For FIFA To Reform: Anger At Soccers Governing Body Reaching Tipping Point

The Sunday Times’ report into alleged corruption surrounding Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid is yet another unwanted body blow to FIFA’s credibility as the custodians of world soccer. The central allegation revolves around former Asian Football Confederation President Mohammed Bin Hammam, who is claimed to have paid a total of $5million to so-called ‘senior football officials’ in the forms of gifts, legal assistance and cash. The goal allegedly was for the beneficiaries of these ‘gifts’ to view the Qatari bid in a more sympathetic light and ultimately build momentum to bring the world’s premier soccer tournament to the oil-rich state.

Amongst the names who reportedly accepted Bin Hammam’s ‘gifts’ were former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner, who apparently was paid a total of $1.6million including $450,000 just before the vote for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and Reynald Temarii, another FIFA Vice President, who was alleged to have been given $415,000 to help pay legal fees after he was banned from the World Cup voting process. Former World Player of the Year George Weah was also allegedly paid, as well as other mid-ranking football officials.

The Qatar 2022 World Cup organizing team quickly came out with a statement denying any wrong-doing and said that Mohamed Bin Hammam had nothing to do with their bid in an ‘official or unofficial’ capacity. Furthermore, the Qatari team has vowed to cooperate fully with FIFA’s chief investigator Michael Garcia, who is looking into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding contests.

Despite the revelations by The Sunday Times, Michael Garcia will not study the new evidence. FIFA’s Chief Ethics Investigator is aiming to complete his work next week and sources familiar with the investigation point out that he wouldn’t be able to meet his deadline if he chose to examine the fresh set of evidence. It’s a controversial decision by Garcia, to say the least.

Garcia’s report will be eagerly anticipated and if he does believe that there has been any wrong doing then calls for a revote, which have already been raised, will only increase.  Interestingly, should a revote happen, the United States could consider themselves favorites to host the tournament.  The US bid was beaten by the Qataris 14-8 in the run-off for the 2022 World Cup. Bear in mind though that immediately after the furor over the awarding of the World Cup began, the voting rules were changed allowing the 209 member federations to vote as opposed to restricting the privilege to the Executive Committee.

There’s little desire within FIFA to conduct a revote because that could mean having to redo the 2018 World Cup bid as well due to the cloud hanging over the dual voting process. Of course, a legal challenge from the Qataris is more than likely as well if they were stripped of the right to host the tournament.

Whether all that comes to pass remains to be seen, but this is yet another stain on FIFA’s governance of the game and soccer’s governing body needs to reform quickly if it wishes to give off a semblance of credibility.

“Crisis?  What crisis?” 

“Football is not in crisis, just some difficulties.” These were the defiant words of FIFA President Sepp Blatter in a fiery 2011 press conference. This followed questions about — surprise, surprise — the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar and the controversy surrounding Jack Warner and Mohammed Bin Hammam.

Blatter has recently stated that he’s ready to stand for a fifth term as FIFA president, saying that his “mission is still going on.” Blatter has been on his mission since 1975, joining FIFA as a Technical Director and then graduating to Secretary General in 1981 before assuming the top post in 1998.

His ascension to the post of President was not without controversy. Vying with then UEFA President Lennart Johansson for FIFA’s top job, Blatter managed to beat his rival, but there were claims from the late Farah Addo, former Vice President of the African Football Confederation, that 18 members of the African bloc were paid $100,000 in exchange to switch their vote from Johansson to Blatter. Addo was careful to point out that it was members of Blatter’s campaign and not Blatter himself who were involved in the alleged corruption.

Whatever the truth, it appears that there were systemic problems within FIFA long before Blatter assumed charge.  The fact that Blatter is allowed to run for a fifth term is indicative of an organization that is resistant to change.

Blatter Bluster

Blatter’s charge list during his time as President has ranged from the ridiculous to insensitive to seriously damaging.

His ludicrous comments about women’s soccer, suggesting female players wear “tighter shorts and low cut tops” to bring in more male fans is an anachronistic view not worthy of a person who is running soccer for ALL people.

When asked for advice to gay football fans who wished to travel to Qatar for the World Cup, he suggested that they “refrain from any sexual activity” if they wanted to attend the tournament. He subsequently apologized for his remark. Blatter later defined homosexuality as a “moral and ethics” issue, thus turning down an opportunity to positively lead on the issue of gay rights.

Blatter’s stance on racism was questioned when he suggested that should any incident happen between players on the pitch, they should resolve it by “shaking hands’ after the final whistle.”  Not surprisingly, he apologized for the offence he caused for that statement after the outcry.

The shadow of financial mismanagement has dogged Blatter’s reign too. ISL was FIFA’s marketing partner who sold the commercial rights to broadcast the World Cup until it collapsed in 2001 with debts of $300million. Blatter claimed that he only had knowledge of his predecessor, Joao Havelange, taking bribes from ISL after the company had collapsed. Blatter himself was cleared of any wrong doing by the FIFA Ethics Committee who described his handling of the affair as ‘clumsy’ rather than ‘criminal’. However, a report given by the Council of Europe investigating the affair found it “difficult to imagine that Mr. Blatter would not have known about this” regarding the ISL affair and bribery claims.

The upcoming World Cup has seen how badly Blatter can misread situations.  The protests at the Confederations Cup focused on how public money was being spent on stadiums for the World Cup rather than on infrastructure, health, transport, and education. Blatter pleaded with protesters ‘”not to use football to make their demands heard.” The point he was missing though was the fact that the Brazilian public was promised that private investors would foot the cost of building the stadiums, leaving public funds to be spent on infrastructure and better transport. Needless to say a large amount of public money has gone to building stadiums.

Blatter views his office and position as one of high importance and indeed travels around the world as if he was a global statesman. He has cemented his position by taking the World Cup around the globe, seeing it hosted for the first time in both Asia and Africa.  No doubt his attention to developing soccer nations has helped build and consolidate his powerbase.

Whilst FIFA under Blatter’s tenure can point to contributions to charitable organizations and partnering with Unicef and the WHO for good causes, the organization may have inadvertently helped migrant workers in Qatar as well.

Revelations of how workers in Qatar have been treated, their working conditions, the ‘kafala’ system, and of course the tragic and unnecessary deaths of over hundreds of workers has forced Qatari authorities to review their labor laws. Would this have happened had Qatar not been given the right to host the World Cup?  The chances are slim. However, if Qatar does change its labor laws, it will be more serendipity rather than the result of a Blatter-led charge for better working conditions.

Different President, Same Problem?

Before looking forward we need to look back at how long the previous Presidents held their positions for. Blatter has held office since 1998. His predecessor Joao Havelange was FIFA president from 1974 to 1998, and before that Sir Stanley Rous led the organization from 1961 to 1974.

Joao Havelange had to give up his title as ‘Honorary FIFA President’ in the wake of the ISL scandal. Havelange accepted gifts and bribes from the company to ensure that ISL won exclusive television and broadcasting rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cup.

Rous’s reign was also questionable as a result of his support to include apartheid South Africa in soccer tournaments whilst dismissing the views of other African nations. He became extremely unpopular because he was blind to, or deliberately ignored, the genuine concerns leveled about his support for apartheid South Africa whilst at the same time marginalizing African (and Asian) soccer.

Rous also decided to authorize a World Cup play-off match between Chile and the USSR at the former’s National Stadium in November 1973.  Two months prior to the ‘match’ the military, led by Augusto Pinochet, overthrew the Chilean government and used the National Stadium as a concentration camp for political opponents – many of whom were tortured or killed.  The National Stadium cleared all the dissidents two weeks prior to the match but the Soviets refused to play at the venue. Rous and FIFA refused to move the game to another venue and the Chilean team turned out to the sight of no opposition, and booked their tickets to the 1974 World Cup. To this day, it remains startling that Rous and FIFA did not change venues in light of the circumstances.

Since 1961, only three men have been in charge of soccer’s top governing body. That cannot be a good thing. It encourages inertia and an acceptance of the status quo – when genuine change is demanded, whether it’s on the pitch or for the governance of the game itself, there is absolutely no incentive to institute reform. A president has to be extremely unpopular with FIFA members, as in Rous’s case, for there to be a change in leadership.

In its current state, FIFA is living within a bubble with administrators ‘playing the game’ within that infrastructure.  The lack of accountability allows members the chance to gain a lot from soccer without having to give too much in return. It’s quite telling that the most transparent ballot under the FIFA banner is for the Ballon D’or. You can find out which player national coaches and captains voted for with respect to the Ballon D’or, but we do not – and under current rules will not be able to – know who voted for which candidate in a Presidential election. With no term limits either, the system only aids those in power to consolidate their clout, therefore leading to the game being governed by a generation of administrators out of touch with the needs of modern soccer.

In that environment there’s no guarantee that FIFA’s next president, whoever it may be, will be any better than Blatter or his predecessors. If the culture of FIFA produces candidates like Blatter, Rous, or Havelange, then it’s not just enough to change the person at the top; the whole organization needs a revamp. Could the Qatar 2022 controversy be FIFA’s own ‘Salt Lake City moment?’

Apart from Blatter, who else could seriously challenge for the position of FIFA president? Michel Platini is the obvious candidate, but his vote for Qatar could prove to be a mark against his candidacy. Furthermore, is the former France captain too Euro-centric for his own good?

Jerome Champagne, the former Deputy General Secretary of FIFA, has stated he will stand for the top job.  Champagne warned that another ‘coronation’ similar to last ‘election’ would be a disaster for FIFA and its credibility. He went on to say that a debate is required in soccer and of the governing body. He said “There is a need for new impetus, fresh air, new vision and some momentum. But at the same time keeping what has been done correctly for 40 years – the universalization of the game, the development program. We need a stronger FIFA.”

Whether FIFA as organization would be willing to accept a new vision is a different matter entirely.

Time for a change?

We can’t simply expect a change of president to foster a new golden age of FIFA. There needs to be more fundamental, institutional change within the organization.  The need to embrace transparency is paramount. It cannot continue to be an organization based in Switzerland living in its own reality as the rest of the world moves on. As Champagne points out, there are a number of issues FIFA is not tackling and if it continues down the current path, soccer’s governing organization could see itself become an irrelevant, toothless body out of sync with the needs of the game and possibly ceding control to a powerful, more organized group.

So what can be done? There’s no simple solution but the first and most obvious thing the organization can do is open up.  Whilst FIFA has done a lot of good work in developing the game in poorer nations, its perception has been sullied because of incompetence, corruption, a lust for money, and just being plain out of touch with the average soccer fan.  It needs to bring in more of the game’s stakeholders, be they player unions, fans groups, or club organizations to name a few. There has to be a willingness and desire to reconfigure the power structure and make things more transparent and accountable.

Right now for all its commercial wealth, FIFA is experiencing a goodwill deficit, which will no doubt be seen at the World Cup if the planned protests go on ahead. It will be difficult to change the organization and those within FIFA may shudder at the prospect of change, but if soccer’s governing body does care about its credibility and wants to remain central to soccer, then its political body needs to reform.

If there happens to be a revote on the 2022 World Cup, then the momentum from that change shouldn’t be restricted to just picking a new host. FIFA members and soccer at large should use the energy to instigate meaningful reform.

Do I believe it’ll happen?  Let’s just say I’m not holding my breath. 


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