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Is FIFA fit to govern?

Emil Vassilyan Emil Vassilyan

In 2015, cases of corruption by officials and others connected with FIFA began to hit the headlines. Big things went wrong with FIFA’s governance but are their changes big enough to change perception of governance in football, and its culture? I don’t think they are. And as sport often provides lessons to other areas, this matters to all of us – not just football fans.

Own goals and red cards

Forty-one former officials from the world football governing body FIFA and other related organisations have reportedly been indicted in the US Department of Justice’s investigation into football corruption.[1] FIFA also recently revealed that Sepp Blatter, its president during the period to which the indictments relate, was paid SFr3.6m ($3.6m) in 2015. You might ask what his pay would have been had this been a successful period for FIFA.

FIFA is accountable to its national member organisations, 209 of whom elect FIFA’s officials, and next year they will distribute $1.1bn to the national member organisations. That number may be higher in a World Cup year. The opportunities for mutual back scratching and sticky fingers are obvious; the ability to hold FIFA to account is not.

FIFA’s mission is to ‘develop football everywhere and for all, to touch the world through its inspiring tournaments and to build a better future through the power of the game’. Recently agreed reforms triggered by the scandal, would “help to restore trust with commercial partners”, FIFA said. Those reforms approved in February’s FIFA Congress include:

  • term limits for the FIFA president and others in leadership positions
  • increased roles for women in football governance
  • independent committee members
  • integrity checks.

Comebacks need game changers

Individually and collectively this cannot be said to be structural reform. It appears to some that FIFA has implemented reforms which are just enough to avert their commercial partners’ concerns while retaining in substance world football’s existing structures and practices. Even with these reforms FIFA cannot be said to exhibit ‘best practice’. Time will judge, but I doubt this is sufficient to change perception of FIFA, or of the member organisations which rely on FIFA’s hand-outs.

Sport is often said to give lessons which are useful in other areas of life. FIFA needed a game changer. Entities faced with governance problems rarely achieve success without structural reform. Success cannot be achieved incrementally. Governance reform should aim to change momentum. FIFA seems to be trying to just patch up a leaky defence.

You might perceive that FIFA is a symptom of broader problems within football. And that the beautiful game isn’t the only sport with these problems.

Within many of the major sports, patronage still appears to be widespread. The opportunity for corruption still exists, maybe through different channels than before. Even if not corrupt, there remains an unabashed taste for personal excess among sport’s leaders.

Too little sponsorship revenue finds its way to sport development projects, amateur sport, or particularly in football for the benefit of fans. Too much money leaves sport destined for players’ agents and other vested interests. So little is spent on drugs testing across all sports that one tennis player (Maria Sharapova, who is not even world number one) earns more than the World Anti-Doping Agency’s entire budget. How can that be right?

But football is so important that if we can fix it other sports will surely follow.

Football’s major sponsors have not yet walked away. Maybe they should. Maybe it’s only the major sponsors that can collectively force change. Could they take their dollars to a completely new set up, free from opportunity for corruption, to a charitable organisation where checks and procedures are in place to ensure that money is spent efficiently for the benefit of fans and grass roots football? The greatest possible proportion of money could be spent on projects such as upgrading training facilities, creating safe and welcoming venues, and – whisper it quietly – possibly even subsidising ticket prices. And just maybe the professionals will play for club, country and glory (and not primarily the money).

Getting it right at the top

Football fans have long felt estranged from their club and the game’s star players. They see unproven teenage players driving luxury cars, players’ agents taking fortunes out of the game, and football club administrators earning salaries ranking alongside those of the most successful businessmen.

If the fans stop watching, then the sponsors will stop paying, and the game will wither and die. Greed is at the heart of football’s ills. The game’s administrators must take a lead from successful public companies, and drive a change in culture throughout the game, starting with the tone from the top. It appears that FIFA is not yet ready to do that. If the sponsors drive change then that will surely boost their brand.

Football fans will be hoping that something happens to restore the lustre of the beautiful game. But football fans are cynics, and alas we are rarely disappointed.


Nick Jeffrey: director – public policy; sports fan

[1] Including: Financial Times 18 March 2016