A diplomatic guide for cleaning out the ranks at FIFA

Last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron put down his marker: London would intervene to prevent the re-election of Sepp Blatter as the head of FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. The British government had reason to believe that bribery lay behind FIFA’s decision to grant Russia and Qatar the rights to host the 2018 and ...

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ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - JUNE 01: Presedent of FIFA, Joseph S.Blatter speaks after being elected again during the 61st FIFA Congress at Hallenstadion on June 1, 2011 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron put down his marker: London would intervene to prevent the re-election of Sepp Blatter as the head of FIFA, soccer's international governing body. The British government had reason to believe that bribery lay behind FIFA's decision to grant Russia and Qatar the rights to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup competitions -- only the latest in a series of corruption allegations against Blatter's organization during his tenure there (including allegations that Blatter himself bribed officials to ensure his re-election).

Last month, British Prime Minister David Cameron put down his marker: London would intervene to prevent the re-election of Sepp Blatter as the head of FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. The British government had reason to believe that bribery lay behind FIFA’s decision to grant Russia and Qatar the rights to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup competitions — only the latest in a series of corruption allegations against Blatter’s organization during his tenure there (including allegations that Blatter himself bribed officials to ensure his re-election).

In the end, Blatt was easily re-elected, winning 186 of the 203 votes cast by international football federations. (The English initiative to delay the proceedings was killed off by a vote of 172 to 17.)  Cameron, meanwhile, has been forced to lick the wounds from his diplomatic defeat.

But it didn’t have to end this way for the British prime minister. If he had been paying attention to the work of the West’s savvy multilateral diplomats, he would have realized there’s a standard procedure to derailing nominations for prominent international posts.

Over the past several months, Britain and its American and European allies have prevented a number of top international positions from finding their way into the hands of unsavory governments, including those of Iran, Libya, Venezuela and Sudan. Most recently, they have succeeded in suspending Libya’s membership on the Human Rights Council, and blocking Syria from joining the Geneva-based rights body.

The rules in the diplomatic arena, where governments hold sway, are admittedly different than those in the corridors of FIFA, where local football associations are expected to remain independent from their governments. Still, Blatter’s enemies may want to take notes before his next bid for re-election.

Find a plausible rival.

Every major diplomatic campaign to kill off an unwanted candidate for high office begins with a discrete search for an alternative. Syria’s bloody crackdown on unarmed demonstrators prompted the West to launch a search for another Arab country that would be prepared to challenge Damascus for a seat on the Human Rights Council. It was no simple feat. Syria had already wrapped up endorsements from the key regional blocs, the Asia Group and the Arab Group, that were due to select a candidate for the post. (The U.N.’s informal system of geographic rotation for top job ensures that every country gets a fair shot.) The West ultimately convinced Kuwait to make a bid — a country that’s hardly a paragon of human rights protections, but one that wasn’t actively assaulting its own population.  Similarly, the West had previously convinced East Timor to make a bid for a seat on the Human Rights Counil, and thus to break ranks with the Asian Group, which had endorsed Iran for the post: East Timor then handily won the job.

At FIFA, Sepp Blatter’s only rival, Mohamed bin Hamman of Qatar, was forced to resign last week amid allegations that he had previously offered to bribe officials from international soccer federations in order to secure his country’s bid for the World Cup.  The collapse of his candidacy left the field open to Blatter.

Demarche, demarche demarche.

Britain, France, the United States and other big powers have foreign embassies in pretty much every capital in the world: Make use of them! Craft a diplomatic message — known as a demarche — explaining why it’s in everybody’s business to prevent the election of the corrupt or sadistic representative in question. “We have demarches in capitals, and in New York,” said one U.N. diplomat, describing his government’s effort to block Syria’s drive for a seat on the human rights council. “We say, support for Syria will reflect very poorly on your country’s reputation. Obviously, there is no need to belabor the point in this instance. They realized it was becoming a huge embarrassment.” While governments are prohibited from interfering in FIFA’s affairs, there is no reason that local soccer federations can’t do outreach to other members.

Forge alliances.

Seek out partners who share your disdain for a particular candidate. For instance, no campaign against Iran would be complete without some backing from the Arab world and Asian countries. In fact, Iran’s bid for a Security Council seat in 2008 was foiled only after Japan broke ranks with the Asia group and campaigned against Tehran for the seat. (Granted, in FIFA’s case, this may prove easier said than done, given that the umbrella soccer organization often has power of the purse over local soccer federations.)

Find a Proxy.

The easiest way to win a campaign for high office is to convince your rival to step aside.  In addition to lobbying friendly governments, U.S. and European diplomats also usually find a proxy to make case to the targeted country that it is pointless to keep running a campaign doomed to failure. In the case of Syria’s Human Rights Council bid, that role fell to Egypt, which worked behind the scenes to convince Syria to pull out of the race. “It’s much better for the Egyptians or the Saudis to tell the Syrians that it’s time to face the inevitable,” said a U.N. diplomat involved in that effort.

Face Saver.

While Kuwait was keen to seek Syria’s Human Rights Council (HRC) seat, it was not willing to enter a contentious campaign against another Arab country, particularly one whose candidacy had the backing of Asian and Arab governments.  Kuwait brokered a face-saving deal that allowed Syria to take Kuwait’s slot on the Asian slate for the 2013 election of HRC members. Similar deals have allowed Iran to withdraw from a race for the HRC with as little public humiliation as possible. The hope for countries like Syria is that they may face less opposition to their candidacy later on if their current domestic turmoil cools down.  “It’s very important to do some face saving, and the swap is a pretty clever way to achieve that,” said a U.N. diplomat involved in the effort to block Syria. “That way Syria doesn’t have to say it’s been knocked out of the running.”

Rally public opinion.

No candidate for high office can be totally oblivious to public opinion. And no one is better at channeling public opinion like private non-governmental organizations. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other private organizations lobbied hard to block Syria, Iran and Belarus from gaining seats on the Human Rights Council.

In FIFA’s case corporate sponsors may have more influence on pressing for change. Coca-Cola, Adidas, and Visa have already raised concerns about the reports of scandal and corruption within the organization. “The current allegations being raised are distressing and bad for the sport,” a spokesman for Coca Cola said recently. “We have every expectation that FIFA will resolve this situation in an expedient and thorough manner.”

But for the next four years, at least, they will have to rely on Sepp Blatter to pull it off.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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