Tales from the long grey oblong…

FIFA’s fall from grace has been dramatic, although not unexpected. Watchers from the sky, such as the veteran journalist Brian Glanville, have been advocating an overhaul of football’s governing body for years and tales of corruption have filtered out from Switzerland on a regular basis, all of which hinted that FIFA could be beyond help. The tipping point was, effectively, the World Cups 2018 and 2022, both of which now have a long, dark shadow hanging over them.

Scandal and intrigue at FIFA has a long history. Many believe that it all began with the Brazilian João Havelange, who led FIFA from 1974 to 1998. He was elected after what amounted to a “beads for the natives” campaign of promised World Cup representation and financial resources for developing countries in Asia and Africa. Havelange cemented FIFA’s broad international reach but it was on his watch that many of the allegations of corruption and scandal took root.

Did the US go “gloves off” because it felt it had lost out to Russia and Qatar?

The real mystery is why it has taken so long to expose and investigate FIFA’s self-serving structure. In any other industry, wrong-doing would surely have been uncovered earlier, especially when so much rumour was circulating the press rooms of Europe for so long. This can, perhaps, be partly attributed to the Swiss way of doing things – no dramatic press conferences, no media explosions. The arrest of FIFA individuals and the simultaneous raid on the Zurich headquarters were very news-grabbing when they happened, but the build-up was relatively low key. Unsurprisingly, it took US involvement to crank-up the investigation. Some suggested that it all went “gloves off” because the Americans felt Russia and Qatar had won the World Cup hosting battle at their expense, but it could just be that enough was enough.

At the heart of FIFA’s problem is the truly appalling level of accountability when it comes to football. Among the multitude of accusations aimed at FIFA are money laundering, bribery and racketeering – and it is unlikely to stop there.

FIFA’s very structure arouses suspicion. A recent TV investigative programme revealed that its HQ, a large grey oblong, resembles the type of backdrop that Ian Fleming would have invented for one of his [James] Bond villains. Sepp Blatter has even joked about the comparisons between himself and a cat-stroking criminal mastermind from a subterranean world.

English football fans have often made similar jibes about the Football Association, but it is one of the few football bodies that has a reasonably good level of transparency – and Lancaster Gate and Soho Square are hardly comparable to Goldfinger’s lair. Across the globe, though, there are alarming gaps in the governance of football.

Transparency International’s latest report, on the state of play across the world’s football associations, makes damning reading. There seems little regard for the football supporter – without whom the financial clout of the game would be somewhat diminished.

There also appears to be a huge financial black hole. Between 2011 and 2014, FIFA gave USD 102m to its six regional confederations, but there is little evidence of how that has been spent.

The Danish Institute of Sports Studies, at its Play the Game conference, recently hosted a session that discussed the role being played by the confederations, and the underlying message was that corruption is likely prevalent across all six. Aderonke Bello, a Nigerian journalist, commented: “Corruption has killed football in Africa and FIFA has contributed to that. We need help in Africa.”

People think UEFA is corrupt, but they need more evidence

There are also problems in Asia, according to Singapore-based journalist, James Dorsey: “There is a school of thought that the AFC is the cause of the current crisis at FIFA. It certainly is but I would argue it’s an accelerator rather than an originator. The AFC [Asian Football Confederation] is a model for corruption at a local level.” As for UEFA, people believe there is corruption, but the evidence is not strong enough.

If you need evidence of complacency and disregard for best practice, just consider that more than 80% of all national associations affiliated to FIFA have no publically available financial records. More than one fifth do not even have a website. And 85% of FAs do not publish records of their activities. Only 14 of FIFA’s 200 member associations publish the minimum amount of information needed to let people know what they actually do. These include: Denmark, England, Japan, Italy, Portugal, Ireland and Sweden.

Transparency International said the arrests and ongoing inquiry demonstrate that football corruption is systemic, and it is difficult to disagree with such a conclusion. But their report has some suggestions that can help change the very opaque world of football administration. Firstly, FIFA should mandate, through a change in its statutes, that all members must make publically-available audited financial accounts, an annual activities report, a code of conduct/ethics and organisational statutes.

Secondly, Transparency International said associations and confederations must develop minimum standards on the content of charters, codes and reports. FIFA should also monitor that associations’ meet these requirements on an annual basis.

The six regional confederations should commit to publishing the same level of relevant operational information as the football associations, including the code of conduct. Furthermore, the report says that FAs and Confederations need independent oversight on their boards.

FIFA, in its best corporate speak, has responded to the report, saying that it is “committed to reform and to instituting best practice standards of accountability, transparency and good governance. It also encourages member associations to work towards those same standards.” To some extent, FIFA dismisses the report as consisting of “a search of internet pages” and “does not reflect the significant reporting that already exists at member association level and between member associations and FIFA.” Incidentally, Transparency International was a one-time adviser to Blatter and co. on a past bribery scandal hit FIFA. But in 2011, ties were cut after recommendations were ignored.

There’s another worrying side to this. In the Danish Institute of Sports Studies’ paper, The Sports Governance Observer, FIFA ranks second overall using criteria such as transparency, democracy, checks and balances and solidarity. What does that tell us about the state of world sport?

Will FIFA change? It has to, because the alternative is to disband it, something that has been championed at various times over the decades. Do not be surprised, though, if come 2016, Blatter is still clinging to power and FIFA’s politburo closes ranks. To quote Ernst Stavro Blofeld: “This organisation does not tolerate failure”.

You only live twice, Mr Blatter.

twitter: @gameofthepeople

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.