The Inconvenient Truth About Soccer

The Inconvenient Truth About Soccer

As one part of FIFA’s leadership circle was swept up in a coordinated series of arrests two weeks ago, a chorus of joyous cries rang out from the football world and beyond. Many believed that the indictments of 14 men — nine of whom were inside FIFA or affiliated confederations — and the additional 25 unnamed co-conspirators, would eventually bring about the fall of Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, FIFA’s long-standing and much-loathed president. No one thought his fall would come as quickly as it did, but still many began to question how real reform could be under the current system. Concern over the issue only grew after Blatter’s surprise resignation last week.

Among the questions that have been circulating in the wake of the indictments, a standout theme has emerged: that FIFA’s reform cannot be entrusted to FIFA as it is currently organized. According to this argument, which gains new adherents and more media attention by the day, the current structure — with a one-federation, one-vote policy — gives too much power to small nations. As Simon Kuper said in the Financial Times, the fact that Germany has the same power as American Samoa “encourages corruption.” Thus, the way to fix FIFA is to shrink the Executive Committee and dilute the power of the small nations. In essence, this logic calls for the developed world to take control of FIFA in order to clean it up — if Germany and England had more power, it suggests, then FIFA could be fixed.

But this argument, in its various forms, fails on almost all counts. How, for example, will the world rid itself of autocratic rule in soccer by limiting voting power? This is a question that few who support the idea seem willing to address. Nor do they want to, because answering the question would expose the faulty assumptions on which this idea stands: that small nations are more corruptible, and that Europe is somehow “cleaner” than other regions.

Let’s confront the flaws in these assumptions head on. The “corruptibility of small nations” argument rests on the idea that FIFA is a patronage organization, which it most certainly is. Each year, FIFA doles out roughly $250,000, known as the Financial Assistance Programme (FAP), to each member federation and larger amounts (currently $5.5 million) to each confederation. The United States, as John Oliver points out, receives as much as Montserrat. For some, this means small nations’ votes can be purchased by the sitting president, because $250,000 goes a long way for small federations, be they in Africa, Latin America, Asia, or Europe. And Blatter made no secret of the fact that he courted small nations. On top of FAP money, FIFA’s Goal programme offers funds for federations to build infrastructure. This too is a form of patronage, and one that is less regulated than FAP. But what is the solution? According to the Europe-can-fix-FIFA crowd, doing away with the one-federation, one-vote policy — because it is so easily corruptible through FIFA patronage — would clean up soccer.

But there is an inconvenient truth about soccer. FIFA is not the only governing body that relies on a patronage system. All sports organizations — be it the NFL or the English Premier League — redistribute profits to their members (and in the case of professional leagues, of course, most of those members come from the ultra-rich). Even the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) — the apparent center of the reform movement — rests on doling out earnings to member federations, leagues, and clubs. Revenue from the Champion’s League, for example, filters through the confederation as “solidarity payments.” As of 2009, UEFA paid out a maximum of €1.3 million per federation/year, which included €500,000 to cover federations’ operating costs. For the 2016-2020 funding cycle, solidarity payments will reach €1.6 million per federation. UEFA also disburses development money in the form of its HatTrick program, which from 2004-2009 had granted €50 million to 47 European federations. For the 2012-2016 cycle, each federation could access €3 million for infrastructure development. How exactly does UEFA’s system differ from that of FIFA? That Andorra and Germany get the same solidarity payment — much more money than FIFA’s FAP, it should be added — does not seem to concern the Eurocentric crowd. But it should. If Michel Platini’s presidency rests on patronage at UEFA, why would he change when he takes the reins at FIFA?

There is another assumption in the “Europe can clean up FIFA” argument that similarly fails to stand up to scrutiny: the belief that Europe and the United States are somehow less corrupt than other regions. We don’t have to look too hard to see the fallacy here. FIFA, after all, is a European institution, located in a country that until recently had no anti-corruption laws. And even if the present indictments focus primarily on Latin American and Caribbean actors, the central font of information comes from the American former FIFA Executive Committee member and CONCACAF general secretary Chuck Blazer’s guilty plea. Jerome Valcke, one of the unnamed co-conspirators, is French. Moreover, it would appear from the indictment that American sportswear giant Nike was implicated as well. The point here is that the European-U.S. nexus is not inherently cleaner than any other part of the soccer world. Lest we forget, the ISL scandal — which in many ways opened the door into the FIFA morass — was based almost entirely in Europe. The Swiss marketing company went bankrupt while trying to stay afloat on money meant to bribe FIFA officials.

This points to another issue with world soccer in general — to a dirty truth that no one really wants to deal with. Under Sepp Blatter, soccer grew exponentially. Not only in terms of expanding the World Cup or developing the sport in the far reaches of the world, but in terms of revenue. While Kuper suggests that the expansion of soccer’s value, the growth of TV revenue, and Blatter’s reign coincided by chance, the truth may be a little less seemly. And here is the other flaw in the assumption that less democracy and European control will lead to a cleaner FIFA: marketing.

The relationship between sports marketing organizations and FIFA has always been a symbiotic one. As firms aggressively marketed soccer, revenues for the sport grew, enriching both soccer institutions and the firms themselves. And from the indictment, it seems apparent that no clear delineation existed between marketing companies and CONCACAF. Enrique Sanz — whose profile matches that of co-conspirator No. 4 — was simultaneously a vice president of Traffic Sports USA (which had exclusive rights to market and promote CONCACAF and CONMEBOL events) and the general secretary of CONCACAF. Others played this role as well — going back to the 1970s and Guillermo Cañedo of Televisa, CONCACAF, and FIFA. Cañedo, in fact, created FIFA’s Media Committee while chairing the largest conglomerate of Spanish-language media channels. Not surprisingly, his network held FIFA broadcasting rights. But this is not a strictly Latin American problem. ISL was the brainchild of Horst Dasler, and with the ISL-FIFA partnership, revenue streams began to grow. Eventually (and we do not know how early in the game) ISL began paying bribes to ensure that it retained rights. For its part, in 1992, UEFA signed a marketing deal with TEAM Marketing to handle the Champion League — a partnership that still exists. A photo of a contract signing in 2012 shows UEFA president, Michel Platini, and UEFA general secretary, Gianni Infantino, with TEAM representatives Martin Wagner and Bernhard Burgener. Infantino, coincidentally, sits on the board of TEAM, as does UEFA Executive Committee member and president of the Royal Dutch Soccer Federation, Michael van Praag. This is not to say that impropriety exists in the relationship between UEFA and TEAM, but certainly a conflict of interest does.

And for all corruption in the Russian and Qatari bids to host the World Cup, we should remember that Platini was one of Qatar’s strongest supporters, that Franz Beckenbauer was investigated for improprieties having to do with the 2018 and 2022 bids, and that the head of UEFA’s Marketing Advisory Committee is Sergey Fursenko. Fursenko headed the Russian Football Union when Russia won the hosting rights for 2018.

It would seem then, that the chorus of reformers needs to do some homework before suggesting that the fastest route to cleaning up FIFA is through Europe and the United States. It seems odd too, that few reference the recommendations of the three reform reports already carried out, none of which suggested doing away with the one-federation, one-vote rule. Rather, they all called for greater transparency within the system.

In other words, instead of throwing democracy out the window, perhaps making some demands of it would be a better place to start. In human rights speak, democracy is about rights and responsibilities. So what would the responsibilities of FIFA member nations be? The number one issue on the table should be transparency. If FIFA gives money to a member state for use on soccer, that member state should have to prove that the money was spent for soccer. The first place to start would be with regular reporting requirements, audits, and independent verification that projects were carried out. Importantly, some sanctions would also be necessary for those federations that failed to comply with accountability measures. Another element of transparency — for FIFA and regional confederations — would be to build a firewall between them and marketing companies, in order to diminish opportunities for corruption and collusion.

But there is a larger issue here that relates to the purpose of FIFA. Critics of FIFA’s patronage system seem to believe that the goal of the organization is to make football the most profitable sport in the world and to develop the highest class of competition. For them, there is no need for small nations, who will never be able to compete on the world stage. If they are right, then perhaps FAP money is a bad thing and should go the way of the dinosaur. But this is not FIFA’s main goal. Its aim is to grow the sport around the world, at all levels. Not just the professional, neo-liberal market level. After all, there is no professional soccer, no high-level product, without the grassroots. To do this, to spread the sport, a distribution of wealth to all members is necessary, as is a one-federation, one-vote rule. But what is also necessary, and what no confederation or region has a monopoly on — indeed what none has shown itself capable of — is transparency.