Why Soccer’s Strongman Is a Bad Role Model for the World

FIFA's imperious president, Sepp Blatter, is poised to win a fifth term using the playbook of the world’s slickest dictators.

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FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, will elect a president at its 65th congress next week. No exercise in democracy, this “election” will look more like China’s National People’s Congress ceremoniously meeting to anoint a predetermined leader.

Sepp Blatter has already served four terms as president of FIFA, clinging to power through a notorious streak of corruption scandals that would make a Congolese kleptocrat blush. Barring any surprises over the next ten days, Blatter’s reign will enter a fifth term, lasting well into his 80s and surpassing two decades of unbroken rule. But FIFA isn’t the ballot-box stuffing jackboot autocracy of yore. Instead, Blatter has adopted the methods of the modern dictator: working hard to look like a democrat while perverting liberal institutions to illiberal ends. With its monopoly over the global game, FIFA is a powerful international institution, and when it takes these tactics, it serves as a dangerous model for the countries and peoples of the world.

Blatter’s first election in 1998 was marred by allegations that he had offered cash in exchange for votes from many of the national football associations that make up the FIFA Congress. In 2011, he ran unopposed after his only opponent withdrew from contention a few days before the Congress, facing corruption allegations of his own. This time around, Blatter has three opponents, but dozens of top officials from national Associations and FIFA executives are already lining up to support his bid and deny his challengers a fair shot. And so the show goes on, with the veneer of democratic governance masking vote-buying, rank corruption, and sham elections.

Blatter’s power resides in FIFA’s finances. In 2014, the organization took in $5.7 billion of revenue, driven mainly by selling TV and marketing rights to the 2014 Men’s World Cup — the most lucrative sporting event in history. Meanwhile, the organization contributed only a token amount toward the massive costs of renovating Brazil’s stadiums and infrastructure to support the tournament. These costs were borne instead by Brazilian taxpayers, most of whom can ill afford it, to the tune of $15 billion.

Where does the money go? FIFA itself is inscrutable. Incorporated as a non-profit in Zurich, Switzerland, it pays no federal taxes and is obliged to adhere to only minimal standards of transparency. But we know that FIFA is sitting on more than $1.5 billion in cash reserves, roughly equivalent to the reserves of the United Nations. Not a bad slush fund, if you’re looking to buy votes. But rather than envelopes of cash slid under hotel room doors (though there are certainly allegations of that happening, too), Blatter buys support by redistributing his World Cup profits in the form of so-called development grants to national football associations and looking the other way as his cronies line their pockets with a cut of the spoils.

With rumors swirling that Blatter could no longer count on the votes of the 25 Caribbean nations in the upcoming election, he made a special trip to the Bahamas last month, where he promised to spread $150 to $180 million in development grants over the next four-year term. In the FIFA Congress, each of the 209 national football associations casts a single vote for the presidency, meaning the Cayman Islands — not exactly a soccer powerhouse — has the same voice as Brazil.

If that sounds like a familiar tactic, you might be thinking of the way Hugo Chavez (and now Nicolás Maduro) spread around billions of dollars in the lead-up to Venezuela’s national elections. This extra government spending helps the country’s ruling party guarantee victory when poor voters, grateful for the support, go to the polls. For FIFA’s incumbent candidate, development grants similarly guarantee votes from delegates who will cast their ballots in Zurich next Friday.

Development grants can play a powerful role in democratizing soccer: providing programs, equipment, and fields for women, at-risk youth, and players with disabilities who might not otherwise have access to the game. But these funds tend to be funneled disproportionately to the most easily bought national associations, which also tend to be the most corrupt. As a result, too little of this money reaches the worthy projects for which it is intended. Many countries’ football associations have been reduced to little more than outposts of FIFA’s corrupt patronage network.

Challenging this hierarchy can come at a steep price. Last year, a group of the world’s premier female soccer players petitioned to have grass fields for the Women’s World Cup — which kicks off in Canada next month — rather than the inferior and more dangerous artificial turf surfaces currently being prepared. FIFA fought the claim, which had been brought before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario as a gender discrimination suit, and allegedly conspired with several football associations to threaten reprisals against their own players. The showdown between the FIFA juggernaut and the handful of players was as unequal as this summer’s Women’s World Cup fields, and the players eventually withdrew their complaint.

To Blatter, such bullying preserves FIFA’s “autonomy.” But this legalistic term — which recalls the way human rights violators appeal to “sovereignty”– is just a shield for FIFA, insulating it from accountability at the hands of its more liberal members or third parties. The FIFA Statutes — the organization’s private rules and regulations — enforce an arbitrary “non-interference clause” and a strict ban on “recourse to ordinary courts,” under penalty of suspensions and other sanctions. With players and governments blocked from seeking justice, and the FIFA Statutes protecting the federation’s entrenched interests, corruption and cronyism continue unabated.

As FIFA bears ever more similarity to a modern autocracy — abusing the rule of law, holding sham elections, buying political support, and marginalizing dissenting voices — it should come as no surprise that it finds itself doling out its biggest prize to countries that share those characteristics. Many nations vie for the honor of hosting the quadrennial Men’s World Cup, and in 2010 the FIFA Executive Committee awarded the next two tournaments to Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022).

Despite actively sponsoring militant separatism in a neighboring state, Russia is slated to host the next Men’s World Cup in just three years. After annexing Crimea last year, the Russian Football Association abolished the two local soccer clubs that had belonged to the Ukrainian league, establishing three new teams to play in Russia. Meanwhile, in preparation for the World Cup in Qatar, migrant workers toil in the modern equivalent of indentured servitude to build the infrastructure needed to host a mega-sporting event in a country where few soccer stadiums previously existed. With minimal rights and safety protections, nearly 1,000 workers have died thus far in World Cup-related construction, and according to labor rights groups, another 3,000 could perish unless Qatar and FIFA implement modern safety standards.

FIFA’s governance certainly matters to the Nepali, Bangladeshi, and Indian laborers risking their lives in Qatar, and to the Brazilian taxpayers who end up footing the bill for grants to functionaries in the Cayman Islands. And these elections matter, of course, to the more than 270 million players and some 2 billion fans who make up global soccerdom. But the governance of this immense organization has even broader implications. Even as Blatter takes pages from the playbooks of the world’s most innovative despots, the learning process runs in both directions.

Freedom House has documented declining political rights and civil liberties around the world for nine consecutive years. The bargain offered developing nations by governments like China’s — compromised political freedom in exchange for sustained economic growth — has broad appeal, and seems to offer entrenched autocrats a way forward without compromising power. A global organization like FIFA, seated in the heart of Europe, serves as a model to its members and to the world. When it plays the same games as governments in Beijing, Caracas, and Moscow, it offers a powerful legitimization of this illiberal style of governance to peoples and states on the fence. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the positions of their current or past employers.

Photo Credit: SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images

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