Can FIFA’s Corruption Be Stopped?

The world’s governing body of soccer is reeling from a scandal involving the next two World Cups in Russia and Qatar. But making it accountable will take more than an investigation.


Fans of American football have weathered a season of scandal, with claims of willfully disregarding knowledge of concussion damage and a culture of domestic abuse battering the National Football League’s top officials. But nothing comes close to the hailstorm that surrounds the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the Swiss-based non-profit that oversees international soccer, including the quadrennial World Cup finals. Since 2010, the organization has found itself buried in an avalanche of allegations of corruption, notably surrounding how it awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.

On Wednesday, Nov. 12, FIFA released summary results of its internal investigation into the various allegations, and to the surprise of no one, found the 2018 and 2022 World Cup decisions to be "well-thought, robust, and professional." Despite uncovering a litany of dodgy episodes and running into investigatory obstacles, such as destroyed computers from the Russian delegation, FIFA concluded that "the various incidents which might have occurred are not suited to compromise the integrity of the FIFA World Cup 2018/2022 bidding process as a whole." In other words, this is basically par for the course.

In many ways it is: Since October 2010, when the Sunday Times successfully pulled off a sting of FIFA Executive Committee members accepting bribes in exchange for their votes in the World Cup bidding process, it has been fairly obvious to even casual observers that something was very wrong inside international soccer’s governing body. FIFA has also been criticized for its inaction over alleged human rights violations in Qatar, associated with the building of stadiums for the 2022 World Cup. And it has steadfastly supported Russia during the ongoing international concerns over its invasion and appropriation of parts of Ukraine. FIFA issued an apology last week for showing a promotional video of the 2018 World Cup that included Crimea as a part of Russia. (In addition to taking territory, Russia has also absorbed Crimean professional soccer teams into its domestic league.) UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations (itself a subset of FIFA) has declared that it will not recognize the results of Crimean clubs within the Russian league. So routine are allegations of impropriety that the general public seems no longer surprised by the chicanery; it’s top executive, the long-serving autocrat Sepp Blatter, would lose badly to Dr. Evil in a popularity contest but still manages to keep an iron grip on power.

But perhaps this scandal is different. One British MP called it a "whitewash." Greg Dyke, the chairman of Britain’s Football Association, went further: "I don’t think Fifa is a straight organisation and hasn’t been for many years," he said on television. And then, in a plot twist worthy of an episode of House of Cards, no reaction to this week’s FIFA announcement was more surprising than that of Michael Garcia, the U.S. investigator who was appointed by FIFA itself to prepare the 430-page investigatory report (which is being closely held by FIFA). Upon FIFA’s release of its internal conclusion on the integrity of the World Cup bidding process, Garcia said that the summary of his investigation contained "numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts." The president of the Bundesliga, the German soccer league, has already put forward the unthinkable — that UEFA might leave FIFA if Garcia’s report is not released in full.

FIFA appears to be having an internal struggle. Garcia has appealed the FIFA verdict on his report to its internal ethics committee. However, no one should get their hopes up for the announced outcome to be overturned. One member of that ethics committee was recently identified by the Sunday Times as a recipient of a bribe offered by a former member of FIFA’s executive committee from Qatar.

FIFA’s troubles are hardly unique in the sports world, just the most visible. For instance, the FIVB, which oversees international volleyball, has faced years of allegations of corruption among its leaders. The IWF, the International Wrestling Federation, has been the subject of similar accusations. So too have organizations which oversee handball and cycling; the list just gets even longer.

How can such shenanigans go on? And why can’t FIFA be held to even rudimentary standards of good governance?

The answer is that FIFA and other international sports federations sit in a global governance void. Over the past century the world has come together, with varying levels of success, to address issues of anti-corruption, environment, and human rights. Sport however has been left pretty much on its own. For a long time, these organizations operated out of sight and faced little scrutiny. Even when they engaged in dodgy practices, there was little concern about how they did business.

In part, that’s because the money involved with hosting mega-events like the World Cup or the Olympics is massive. For instance, the Sochi Winter Olympics last year cost a reported $51 billion. This summer’s World Cup, in Brazil, cost $15 billion — and spurred protests across the country that the money to pay for it was siphoned from educational and social projects. People have long since stopped pretending that sport is anything other than a business, but the public does still expect that the spirit of fair play and competition will be reflected in how the organizations which put on these games do their business.

The institutional details matter for understanding why FIFA officials can operate with such impunity, thumbing their noses at journalists, independent watchdogs, even governments. The organization is technically a non-profit, despite its great wealth accumulated mainly through television contracts and sponsorships. It sits in Switzerland, along with dozens of other sports organizations, where it is accountable only to Swiss law. Despite occasional threats from Swiss politicians to crack down on corruption in sports organizations, the Swiss government has done very little. Part of this is due to its structure: FIFA is a patronage organization, with decisions made by supermajority — one country, one vote. And when FIFA doles out millions of dollars to poor countries and their football programs and teams, that buys a degree of loyalty that has kept Blatter in power for decades — and his targeted largesse flowing.

FIFA’s sponsors have the potential to exert influence on how the organization operates, but to date they have only issued the occasional press release expressing concern about governance issues. FIFA and its World Cup make big money. In 2010, for instance, World Cup ball and jersey sales alone accounted for $2 billion of Adidas’s total global revenue. No sponsor yet has shown an interest in killing the golden goose, no matter how badly the goose behaves.

After the 2010 revelations of various irregularities in the 2018/2022 World Cup bidding process, FIFA established a good governance reform effort. This effort achieved little, despite FIFA’s pronouncements of success, with its most significant result being the creation of Garcia’s investigatory effort and the sanctioning body that this week found the 2018/2022 World Cup bidding process to have been "well thought, robust, and professional."

FIFA can operate with impunity with respect to corruption, human rights, and international geopolitics because it has very little external accountability. The organization has shown, repeatedly, that it is just not up to the standards of good governance in the 21st century.

So what can be done?

History provides some precedent. In 1998, the Tour de France was embroiled in a huge scandal over doping, which came to be called the Festina affair, after the team first caught with prohibited performance-enhancing drugs. Around the same time, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) found itself caught up in its own scandal over bribes given by the Salt Lake City organizing committee, which landed the 2002 Winter Games. Jens Sejer Andersen, of the Danish non-profit Play the Game, observes that the Festina affair created enormous pressures for something to be done about doping in sport. But the organization best suited to respond to the doping problem, the IOC, had itself been damaged by the bribery scandal. So a response had to come from somewhere else. The result was the creation of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which is governed by sports organizations and governments together. That organization was formalized under an international treaty under UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization in 2005, and has become one of the world’s most successful governance regimes on any topic. More than 170 nations are party to the treaty, including the United States, Iran, and North Korea.

The treaty creates a framework for coordinated international policies on prohibited substances and a shared approach to investigations and sanctions. Each signatory nation is required under the treaty to establish a domestic anti-doping agency for sports that qualify for the Olympics. These bodies then police national athletes and leagues that are covered under the WADA Code, with the oversight of the supranational body. The investigation of and penalties handed out to Lance Armstrong and his teammates for their decade of doping in cycling occurred under the WADA regime.

The lesson here is not that international coordination and government involvement eliminated doping in sport. Rather, it is that the international regime provides a mechanism to deal with cheating when it inevitably occurs. The lesson that we should take from FIFA’s latest failure to police itself is that it is time for national governments to step in and help sport bring its standards of governance into the 21st century. Until that is done, we have little reason to expect anything different than what we’ve seen this week.

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