Reforming FIFA?

The issue lays bare the broader trade-offs between democracy, efficiency and legitimacy that epitomise global governance

Matthew BishopOne of the most remarkable outcomes of the corruption scandal that has engulfed the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is the rapidity with which its formerly impenetrable headquarters in Zurich has come to resemble a fetid goldfish bowl, the inhabitants of which finally appear to be above neither the (very) long arm of (American) law, nor ridicule.

Indeed, the moment at which the crisis became terminal was not the dramatic arrest of seven current or former officials (out of 14 indicted) by the Swiss and US authorities, nor the indignation – in some quarters – that followed FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s Mugabe-like determination to win a fifth term of office at the age of 79 (before announcing he would subsequently stand down).  No, it was when those involved had the curtain pulled back on their illusory sheen of invincibility and were immediately rendered little more than pantomime villains.

As one hilarious example, consider Austin ‘Jack’ Warner – a man whose Machiavellian influence has loomed over Trinidadian politics for as long as I have lived here, just as it did his meteoric rise to the apex of FIFA – taken in by a spoof article by the satirical website, The Onion, with which he sought to paint himself as an unfortunate victim of a conspiracy.

As the dust settles, calls for restructuring FIFA will inevitably grow louder.  But is reform desirable or plausible, and on what basis should it be undertaken?

The answer to the first part of the question is a resounding ‘yes’.  As David Goldblatt has argued, the outraged voices calling for World Cup boycotts on the part of the major European nations, or for withdrawal of the Union des Associations Européennes de Football (UEFA) from FIFA, are misguided.

UEFA members could certainly demolish FIFA if they so wished.  But this would destroy the global governance of football, leading to fragmentation, even placing the World Cup – the pinnacle of the game – in jeopardy for players and fans alike.  It may also not solve the corruption problem: the Premier League is emblematic of the disfiguring consequences wrought by the explosion of money over the past twenty years.  Indeed, its very raison d’être when established in 1992 was to enrich itself by circumventing the – somewhat dysfunctional – governance of the Football Association.  Consequently, England’s positioning of itself at the head of UEFA as the plucky, whiter-than-white, defender of probity rings distinctly hollow.

So, we need FIFA.  As Goldblatt puts it, ‘the game really is the most global cultural practice in the world, a rare form of universalism on a divided planet’ and should therefore ‘have a global body’.  This is particularly so, he suggests, because we need to remember ‘how hard it is to create durable, functioning global institutions’.

The second part of the question – how might FIFA be reformed? – represents a thornier puzzle, highlighting an enduring tension within broader debates about global governance regarding the way we balance the imperatives of democracy and representativeness with those of efficiency and legitimacy.

FIFA’s strengths are fundamentally a reflection of its weaknesses.  It is actually a markedly democratic organisation: influence is distributed between the six continental confederations, thereby inhibiting the dominance of the established footballing powers.  A total of 209 members have equal voting rights, including even non-sovereign territories such as Guadeloupe, a French Caribbean island which provided many of France’s best players in their glorious teams of 1998 and 2002, but which participates alone in CONCACAF (North American and Caribbean) tournaments.  For those concerned about what Tony Payne calls the ‘marginal majority’ of the world’s states that are usually excluded from other global governance bodies, this represents a rare instance of inclusivity.

Yet it is this very arrangement – combined with astronomical amounts of money – which has created a labyrinthine form of politics, the wheels of which are greased continually with tribute passing back and forth between the leaders of national football associations, the six presidents of the confederations who control enormous block votes and the other 18 members of the 24-strong FIFA Executive Committee (which decides the World Cup host-country).  Until recently, the arcane activities of the associations, in often tiny countries with little football heritage, remained outside the purview – or even consciousness – of their national governments, creating a breeding ground for diversion of funds and personal enrichment.

This explains how Warner, a former schoolteacher from Trinidad & Tobago – a country which has only qualified once for the World Cup, in 2006, and has only produced one player of real note, Dwight Yorke – rose to dominate CONCACAF for 21 years and become the major powerbroker in world football, apparently even channelling football money into Trinidadian politics and giving the current government, of which he was once a part, something of a headache as it prepares to fight an election while mulling over the US request for his extradition.

It also explains how Qatar, a small state which shares many similarities with Trinidad – not least a population of just over a million and burgeoning oil and gas wealth – but which has never qualified for a World Cup, was able to win the favour of those two-dozen executives to become host of the 2022 tournament.  It should be no surprise, then, that the two most recent plausible challengers to Blatter – the now-disgraced Mohamed bin Hammam and Jordan’s Royal Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, both of whom rose through the ranks of football administration in peripheral countries and their regional federations – have followed an eerily similar career path to Warner.

In short, without real reform to the logic of how FIFA operates, this situation will perpetuate itself as the votes of associations in small Caribbean, Asian and the Pacific countries are easily purchased, reproducing a formidable barrier to European and South American influence.

I would personally be happy, therefore, to trade a little equity for efficiency – and hopefully greater legitimacy – with voting weight in FIFA shifted in favour of those that have had, historically, the greatest footballing success.  After all, this is how World Cups are seeded and places in club tournaments, like the Champions’ League, are distributed.  The countries with the biggest investment in the game, which produce the best players and therefore generate the spectacle itself, should not be held to ransom by the corrupt administrators of those that do not.

Another option would be to retain one-member/one-vote, but, as Simon Reich has suggested, establish a United Nations-esque ‘Security Council’ with a veto to safeguard unanimity. Providing power shifted over time according to changes in patterns of success, these reforms would not entrench the old guard eternally: Japan is the current holder of the women’s World Cup and both South and North Korea have won its Under-17 variant.

Such changes would at least ensure that sporting logic plays a larger part in key decisions than at present, even if reform alone will not decisively solve the corruption problem.  For this, we perhaps need to ask why it required the US government to take the initiative regarding crimes that were occurring under the noses of European authorities.  But this brings forward another legitimacy issue: many people elsewhere in the world understandably view the West’s role in precipitating the current crisis with deep suspicion.

Given England’s disingenuous outrage of recent days, one way to challenge perceptions of Western meddling and double-standards could be for the British authorities to live up to the self-righteous rhetoric and perhaps take a little peek into the Premier League cupboard to root out any skeletons that might be hiding there…