Amid the scandals that have become routine surrounding FIFA, fans and experts have wondered: What of the sponsors? With more pressure needed to reform what multiple jurisdictions are investigating as corruption, couldn’t the body’s biggest backers help motivate change?
As of today, we may begin seeing answers to those questions. According to Bloomberg, Coca-Cola, one of FIFA’s most-tenured and important sponsors, is calling for the immediate resignation of Sepp Blatter, the organization’s embattled president. The soft drink maker, one of five “parter”-level businesses among FIFA’s relationships, became the first significant sponsor to make such a demand.
In a statement, a lawyer for Blatter said “While Coca-Cola is a valued sponsor, Mr. Blatter respectfully disagrees with its position.”
Shortly after Coca-Cola’s announcement, Budweiser, a partner from FIFA’s “World Cup sponsors” rung of relationships, also called for Blatter’s resignation, while McDonalds, another World Cup sponsor, demanded “meaningful changes” amid the “recent allegations and indictments have severely tarnished FIFA.”
Blatter has committed to stepping down in February, when FIFA will hold a special congress to electing the departing president. But amid news of a criminal investigation targeting the 79-year-old Swiss by his home country’s government, Blatter’s position has become increasingly untenable. Jerome Valcke, FIFA’s now-suspended Secretary General, had been a close ally of Blatter’s, while presidential hopeful Michel Platini looks increasingly unlikely to be elected amid connections to Blatter an a now-disputed €2 million payment from FIFA.
These controversies are the culmination of a turbulent period for Blatter and FIFA, one that began with a law enforcement raid of executives’ hotel in Switzerland ahead of May’s congress. Prior to that, long-standing suspicions of corruption, particularly after the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, brought calls for sponsors to reevaluate their relationships with FIFA.
Until today, those calls had only produced the occasional, carefully-worded rebuke from the body’s “partner”-level sponsors: Adidas, Coca-Cola, Gazprom, Hyundai/Kia, and Visa. Coca-Cola, however, has become the first company to draw a hard line on FIFA. Via Bloomberg:
Coca-Cola Co., a top sponsor of FIFA, called for Joseph “Sepp” Blatter to step down immediately as president of soccer’s governing body following a scandal involving alleged bribes and kickbacks.
Blatter’s departure would allow a “credible and sustainable reform process” to begin, the beverage giant said on Friday.
“Every day that passes, the image and reputation of FIFA continues to tarnish,” Coca-Cola said in an e-mailed statement. “FIFA needs comprehensive and urgent reform, and that can only be accomplished through a truly independent approach.”
McDonald’s statement reiterated that urgency:
… recent allegations and indictments have severely tarnished FIFA in a way that strikes at the very heart of our sponsorship.
As a result, we have expressed our concerns directly to FIFA. We believe FIFA internal controls and compliance culture are inconsistent with expectations McDonald’s has for its business partners throughout the world. We are not satisfied with FIFA’s current handling of the recent incidents that go clearly against McDonald’s culture and values.
FIFA must now implement meaningful changes to restore trust and credibility with fans and sponsors alike. The world expects concrete actions and so does McDonald’s.
This is the final straw; or, at least, the beginning of it. Fans have long been suspicious of FIFA, while clubs and administrators have been able to turn their backs and occupy themselves with their own worlds. Now law enforcement is taking a pointed interest, leaving only a few backers in FIFA’s corner: isolated actors like Qatar and Russia and, until today, the Adidas’s and Coca-Colas of the world.
That’s the big risk to Blatter. Though, in the past, he could always rely on the loyalty of partners and internal actors to maintain his power, his list of allies is dramatically shrinking. The Valkces of the world are starting to disappear. With sponsors hinting FIFA’s business model may come under threat, it becomes easier for dissenters to mount a challenge. The list of people Blatter can count on for support will dry up when the benefits begin to dwindle.
If Coca-Cola’s willing to take this stance and, as it concerns their business, open the door to another company like Pepsi to form an important relationship, why can’t Adidas take a similar risk, even if it means creating an opportunity for Nike? Those questions will now be asked. Why is Hyundai being loyal merely because another automaker might link up with what executives and shareholders will see as a corrupt group? Should Visa be scared of American Express? Why should Gazprom risk losing this relationship to Shell?
It’s not as easy as those questions imply. If FIFA turns the corner tomorrow, strong stances and ethical objections become oil in the water. And companies, for better or worse, have conflicting motivations.
At some point, though, enough reasons line up in the pro-column to justify a move. And for Coca-Cola, Budweiser and McDonalds, the benefits of speaking out and possibly severing a relationship now outweigh the costs – a continued association with what appears to be one of most corrupt organizations in the world.
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