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FIFA needs reform and ethics, too

12 June 2015

The football governing body requires more than tinkering, says Paul Bickley


Funded: a poster for United Passions, a film paid for mainly by FIFA; right: its star, Gerard Depardieu (left), with Sepp Blatter in Cannes last year

Funded: a poster for United Passions, a film paid for mainly by FIFA; right: its star, Gerard Depardieu (left), with Sepp Blatter in Cannes last yea...

WHEN Winston Churchill marked the turning-point in the war which was the British victory at the Second Battle of El Alamein in 1942, he said: "Now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." Such was the arrest of seven FIFA officials, taken from their suites in the Bar au Lac hotel in Zurich on 27 May.

On one level, this was no great surprise. FIFA's bribe culture has been a semi-open secret since 2006. In its own investigations in 2014, the governing body of world football had conceded that its former president João Havelange was guilty of receiving bribes in return for broadcast rights. Most of this had been brought to light not through criminal investigation, but through dogged investigative journalism.

On another level, however, it represents a decisive turn in events. Until now, FIFA has been skilled in the arts of deflection and delay. It cost the organisation nothing to throw Havelange under a bus (metaphorically) in 2014, since he had already been implicated in corruption allegations by a Swiss court in 2012.

The recent arrests and indictments are the early fruits of the first proper criminal investigation.


WITH the brass neck of a man used to getting away with it, the FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, stood for, and won, his fifth presidential term no more than 48 hours after the arrests. That he could attract the support of 133 of the 209 national football associations illustrates the complexity of the problem.

Much of Blatter's support came from the often-ignored African associations. That he then stood down four days later will be an encouragement to some, but I am not sure that I am one of them. As one commentator put it, the king may be dead, but the ancient regime is still in place.

The prospects for the reform of FIFA's internal structures look uncertain. There is almost no consensus on what the reforms should look like. What is more, they would have to win the support of at least some of the national associations who have been gerrymandering the existing processes. Even our own campaigning FA was sucked in to trying to accommodate the bizarre demands of various FIFA executives, including the now disgraced Jack Warner.

Changes in leadership and structure would be welcome, but they will not in themselves hold back the forces that distort world foot-ball.


FIRST among these is the usually unchallenged orthodoxy that football is now a global business. This concept has provided the cover for lavishly living executives to go about the business of self-enrichment for too long without scrutiny.

What FIFA does, though, is not a business: it produces nothing, it provides few services, and adds little value. What it does is to bestow the "gift" of a bloated World Cup, which the host nation (and their hard-driven tax-payers) pays for and organises.

South Africa, a nation where 20 per cent of the population lives in extreme poverty, spent £3 billion on its 2010 tournament. Economists have estimated that it recouped perhaps ten per cent on its investment.

Yet, on the basis of the hard work done by host nations, the global "football family" of FIFA harvests the profits from broadcasting rights, advertising, and sponsorship ($5.7 billion in the most recent four-year World Cup cycle, the Financial Times reports). This is not "business": it is living by the sweat of other people's brows.

How is it, then, that national football associations - including our own FA - manage to persuade their governments that it is a good idea to make a bid to host the World Cup? When the FIFA official Domenico Scala mooted the possibility that Russia and Qatar could lose their world cups if evidence of vote-buying were found (a big "if"), commentators started talking about the geopolitical implications.

For countries such as Russia and Qatar, just as with the Olympics in Beijing and London, what is at stake is nothing less than a kind of global legitimacy. Such sporting mega-events are the basis for the projection of influence and "soft" power. The continuing FBI investigation itself runs the risk of being mired in the accusation of being politically motivated.


TO MOVE on from here, we need to recognise that it is in making football more than it should be that FIFA has succeeded in diminishing it. As the historian Christopher Lasch noted in The New York Times back in 1977: "The degradation of sport . . . consists not in its being taken too seriously but in its subjection to some ulterior purpose, such as profit-making, patriotism, moral training, or the pursuit of health. Sport may give rise to these things in abundance, but ideally it produces them only as by-products having no essential connection with the game."

The more we try to press sport in general, and football in particular, into the service of commerce, or peace-making, or even evangelism, the more we rob ourselves of the goods it genuinely offers - such as freedom, joy, and play.

Now, crucially, the human costs of FIFA's bad decision-making are coming to light. Like all corrupt institutions, I expect it has an all-singing, all-dancing corporate social-responsibility policy, but, when push came to shove, it awarded the World Cup to a Wahhabi absolute monarchy that is using bonded labour to build its stadiums.

So, yes, we need a change of leadership, reform of FIFA's structures, and more transparency - but, by the time we get to the end of this sorry process, I would be encouraged if FIFA conducted its business with an ethos. It could do worse than to start with the dictum "First, do no harm."

Paul Bickley is the Director of Political Programme at the religion and society think tank Theos, and co-author of Give us our Ball Back: Reclaiming sport for the common good (Sports Think Tank/Theos, 2012).

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