In the wake of last week’s Scottish referendum some young scamps took to Twitter, floating the idea that maybe football should seek independence from FIFA. It was a hugely popular suggestion and it is not difficult to see why. In the minds of most football fans FIFA has become synonymous with corruption. For as long as people can remember it has lurched from one scandal to another, mired in controversy. And yet, in a bizarre attempt to push the entire planet into irony overload, the first ever World Summit on Ethics in Sport is currently being held at FIFA’s Zurich headquarters. Asking football’s world governing body to host an event on ethics is as ludicrous as getting Jimmy Carr to head up a tax-evasion taskforce or making Tony Blair the Middle East peace envoy.
So bad has the situation become – and so vocal are the organisation’s critics – that FIFA have been forced to launch their own ethics committee. Earlier this month the head of that committee, Michael Garcia, delivered his findings following an 18-month investigation into the bidding process that saw the 2018 and 2022 World Cups awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively. So far only four people have seen that report and it seems likely there will now be a protracted battle to see it published in full. Any attempt by FIFA to keep the document confidential will surely only serve to further tarnish their reputation.
Elsewhere a story surfaced that 28 people on FIFA’s executive committee had each been given a £16,000 watch by the Brazilian Football Confederation during the World Cup. FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce promised to return his having remembered that he had stashed it in his garage. Seriously, how rich do you have to be to forget that you own a watch worth £16,000? Greg Dyke said that he had received six watches since he took over as the head of the Football Association last year. Although not on the same level as the allegations surrounding Russia and Qatar, the watches scandal does nothing to dispel the notion that there is a culture amongst football’s upper echelons of bribes, backhanders and favour-trading. And this is certainly not the image that FIFA wants to portray.
In June Sepp Blatter (who considers FIFA's ethical standards to be "exemplary") gave his presidential address to the 64th annual FIFA Congress, during which he outlined this vision:
“Football should be a force for positive change in the world, not an obstacle to it. And so should FIFA … Large institutions must set the right example because we shape society. We make decisions that impact lives. We cannot expect others to act in the right way if powerful organisations like FIFA do not. My vision for FIFA in this changing world is this: We must become one of today’s pioneers of hope – just like those seven original pioneers who started everything for us. We must carry that flame of honesty, responsibility and respect. If we do not, we will betray the true spirit of this game we all love.”
Unfortunately for Blatter few people regard FIFA as “a force for positive change in the world”. And nowhere was this more apparent than in Brazil. During last year’s Confederations Cup and again at the World Cup, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest at the expense of the two tournaments. In the spiritual home of football people carried placards that read “FIFA Go Home”. Whenever Blatter was introduced to supporters or his image appeared on the giant screens inside the stadiums he was roundly booed.
While millions of poverty-stricken people live in the favelas of Brazil, the 2014 World Cup generated more than $4 billion in total revenue for FIFA. Regardless of how much Blatter talks about his mission or how much FIFA may busy itself with debates over goal line technology or player suspensions, it cannot hide the fact that its role as football administrator is nothing more than a secondary concern. As a transnational institution it wields alarming power and influence. It can pressure nation states into granting it tax-exempt status. It sits on cash reserves of nearly $1.5 billion. It sits at the centre of a global web of television deals, marketing rights and corporate sponsors. The real business of FIFA is business.
With all that has gone before it is little wonder that people believe there is something rotten in the world of football. But to think that tinkering with procedures or changing personnel can deal with the corruption at the heart of FIFA is to misread the situation. The problem is not simply one or two bad apples; it is systemic, woven into the very fabric of the organisation, a prime sporting example of crony capitalism at its very worst. Those of us who would like to see a transparent, responsible, democratically accountable world of football should not seek to reform FIFA; we should find a way to smash it.