The Problem With FIFA – Democracy

Last week Gianni Infantino was elected the new President of FIFA, almost by default thanks to his own boss’ corruption and the developing world’s inability to stand a candidate who hadn’t identified his own players for torture or been named after a randy Japanese aquatic mammal. It’s not needed to go into the various abuses of FIFA’s position that Blatter and his predecessor the equally corrupt Joao Havelange presided over but they were many and great. The story that broke over last summer laid bare what many football insiders had know for many years and which arguably the mainstream public had known since Qatar was handed the World Cup. FIFA is corrupt.

As we’ve been counting down the days to the election, we’ve had to endure a number of months of Blatter playing the idiot and attacking anyone who criticised him, an utter refusal to engage with any practical reforms by most of the FIFA power brokers and where reform has been proposed it’s been weak and ineffectual. All of which deserves it’s own analysis elsewhere but the core of the matter is that FIFA is institutionally corrupt not only because of the figures involved at the top of the game who have used it to enrich themselves at the cost of the public but because of it’s structure.

The 1 nation/1 vote structure that FIFA employs is supposed to be the ultimate in sporting democracy, a signal that FIFA respects all nations and all races, an important creed for some in the organisation after it’s foot dragging over incorporating Africa and Asia during the Rous era. However this is exactly the structure that left the door ajar for the kind of corruption that Havelange, Blatter and their lieutenants became so adapt at.

The core of the issue is that football is not equally important on a country by country basis, nor are there the institutional structures in many countries to hold their representatives to account. Until very recently it was a minor sport in the United States, seen as played by minorities and the children of soccer moms and confined to those interest groups. In places like Venezuela and Cuba it trails behind baseball in popularity and across swathes of Africa and Asia, engagement with football has come recently and primarily via televised European leagues rather than an engagement with football in their own nation. In many of these countries, the average football fan let alone citizen would be hard pressed to name their FA head and FIFA representatives let alone hold them up to scrutiny.

When a lack of interest in the game, either as a whole or nationally exists it enables those in control of the governance of the game to make it their own personal fiefdom, free from scrutiny and oversight as Chuck Blazer, Jack Warner and Jeffrey Webb did in the Carribbean or Issa Hayatou (still a FIFA ExCom member) has done in Africa. With no public scrutiny of their role, they are free to engage in corruption. The fact that their votes when allocating World Cups or deciding media contracts hold as much weight as the likes of England, Japan etc, countries with well developed developed scrutiny processes and who contribute far more to the global game is what enables and encourages people to bribe them.

Havelange, always a smooth operator, was quick to identify this essential feature of FIFA, indeed he was behind a great deal of it’s development as he evangelised spreading football into Africa and Asia and increasing World Cup participation amongst these nations, culminating in the now standard 32 team World Cup from France ’98 onwards. In exchange for this, he was quick to cultivate a strong network of minor nations who were loyal to him and would support him on any matter, allowing his corruption in exchange for him turning a blind eye to theirs and increasing their representation in the World Cup and on FIFA committees. Blatter continued his approach with particularly strong support from Africa, Asia and the Carribean over the years, even as late as 2015 with the organisation mired in controversy Blatter still maintained strong support amongst these nations, who actually feigned anger and surprise at why people could possibly want him to stand down. Where Havelange and Blatter went, dozens of developing nations reliant upon them for patronage followed.

This bloc of nations would not be a problem if it were not for FIFA’s 1 nation/1 vote rule, where because of this strange commitment to democracy FIFA is an institution where UEFA, a confederation which provides nearly all the major footballing leagues, the majority of the world’s best teams outside of South America and the bulk of popular competitions has only 13 more votes than CONCACAF, a confederation known for it’s endemic corruption, sparsely populated nations and which outsideĀ  the USA and Mexico (genuine world football powers) has provided almost nothing to the World game, the odd World Cup run aside. When you combine this with the aforementioned increased propensity for corruption in minor footballing nations, giving confederations such as CONCACAF this power is beyond dangerous to FIFA and yet amongst the latest reform proposals, nowhere is there the suggestion to reform voting rights.

World Rugby does not accord the same voting rights to minor nations as it does to the major nations who provide much of the competition and financing of the game and to it’s benefit. The stakeholders who contribute the most to the game thus have the greatest say over it’s governance. Although the Rugby administrators and nations can be accused of being resistant to change and old fashioned, they are capable of change where it is needed such as accommodating the growth of Argentina and it is noticeable the lack of corruption accusations surrounding World Rugby compared to FIFA and the previous poster boy for sporting corruption the IOC. The world’s two largest sporting events, the Olympics and the Football World Cup have both been subject to highly damaging corruption scandals, the Rugby World Cup has not been. It’s not a coincidence.

Yet it can not be denied that corruption has also found it’s way into the established footballing powers, Michel Platini’s actions over Qatar and his subsequent fall from grace for accepting suspicious payments from Herr Blatter being the obvious example. The German World Cup bid committee for 2006 is under heavy scrutiny currently as is Franz Beckenbauer and even England has been accused of minor infringements in their own bumbling way. This being said FIFA’s attempt to finger the blame at England over the 2018/22 bid scandal in the redacted Garcia Report was one of the most ridiculous actions in a long line of ridiculous actions by Blatter. Especially when the Russian bid team had casually, many would say deliberately, destroyed all their bid documentation and FIFA accepted it with nothing more than a casual shrug of their shoulders…if only we all could just destroy anything with incriminating evidence about us.

The ultimate solution to this problem is not giving women a certain number of positions on the FIFA board, nor limiting Presidential terms to a frankly ridiculous and pointless 12 years (more than the US President!) as voted for in Switzerland last week. It’s in fixing voting rights within FIFA. To do this the following should be applied, taking into account World Rugby’s usage of weighted voting rights.

Every four years directly after a World Cup, an independent outside auditor should use the following criteria to allocate every footballing nation to one of five ranks:

Voting Criteria (in no particular order)

  1. Historical Significance
  2. Current FIFA Ranking after World Cup
  3. Performances in the last World Cup and Confederational Tournament
  4. Contribution to World Game (aid payments, providing coaching, improving admin of developing nations etc)
  5. Corruption index based upon independent audits of the national FA and other stakeholders in the country

Once every nation has been ranked on these criteria, they should then be split into 5 tiers of nations with the following voting powers, 15, 10, 5, 2, 1. This means that the games largest stakeholders (Germany, the United States, Japan etc) will always have a certain weight in FIFA structures but can be penalised for long term poor performance, corruption scandals or lack of engagement with the developing world. Likewise emerging nations such as Belgium, Colombia etc in the last World Cup will reap the reward of their good work and on field performances by moving up the weighting ranks and gaining more influence at FIFA for the next four year cycle.

Only once a new voting structure such as the one laid out in this article has been created, along with a whole other raft of transparency reforms, such as finally moving the HQ out of Switzerland and to a respected audited location such as New York City, Berlin or London, will FIFA ever shed it’s corruption and become truly an organisation for administering football rather than filling the pockets of corrupt ‘administrators’ worldwide.

Without a fundamental reform of voting at FIFA then the organisation will never change. Any reforms will merely be tweaks failing to alter the rotten core of the organisation’s structure. When you can bribe someone like Jack Warner, who held nearly a 5th of all of FIFA’s voting power as his own personal fiefdom, it’s never going to be that hard to corruptly acquire media rights and World Cups. It’s no surprise that Warner’s eventual replacement was Jeffrey Webb, the same Jeffrey Webb who was arrested during those dramatic arrests at Baur au Lac last year and the same Jeffrey Webb that Sepp Blatter was lauding as an agent of change within FIFA just weeks before.

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The Problem With FIFA – Democracy