I am a fan of soccer (football, as it is known to most of the rest of the world) and any time that I despair at the level of corruption and ordinary incompetence in government in this country I turn my attention to the world governing body of soccer, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), to place things in perspective. I sent the letter below to the London Sunday Telegraph after Sepp Blatter resigned as president of FIFA in the face of overwhelming evidence that he had presided for years over a systemically corrupt organization. I do not know if the letter was published.
The resignation of Sepp Blatter as President of FIFA affords the member associations of FIFA the opportunity to adopt systemic reforms. Without systemic reforms the likelihood of permanently reducing the level of corruption in FIFA is negligible.
First and foremost, the regulatory and administrative functions of FIFA must be separated completely from the financial assistance programs, and given discrete governance structures. Although the selection of tournament sites and sponsors has been vulnerable to bribes, kickbacks and other forms of corruption, it has been Blatter’s control of project and program funding that has allowed him to remain in power.
Able to reward his friends and punish his enemies, Blatter retained the loyalty of a coalition of associations that benefited from his favor. It is neither a secret nor a coincidence that this coalition consisted mostly of associations in countries in which corruption is endemic. Consequently, it would have been against Blatter’s personal interest to move aggressively against corruption anywhere in FIFA: He would have been biting the hand that fed him.
At the same time there must be a review of FIFA’s wealth-distribution role. Does FIFA’s program serve as a cost-effective means of building pitches and other football infrastructure in developing nations, or is it more effective at putting money in the hands of corrupt association leaders and their cronies? No one would argue against the principle that developing nations should get a disproportionate amount of the financial assistance. It also is correct, however, that even good governmental agencies and NGOs struggle to deliver financial assistance of the type given by FIFA (money for programs, projects, and facilities) to developing countries without having the majority of the money skimmed by and lost to corrupt officials and government functionaries.
On the regulatory and administrative side of the organization there must be rigorous financial disclosure requirements in place for FIFA officials in a position to vote on or influence the selection of tournament sites and approve contracts with sponsors and broadcasters. Although it may offend FIFA’s finally-tuned sense of political correctness, it also may be necessary to withdraw some power from those developing nations that contribute little to global football in terms of financial investment and support. Having poor countries participate in decisions for which they have no real skin in the game is an invitation to bribery. What in theory is a democracy in practice becomes a kleptocracy.
Finally, there has to be a Board of Governors on the regulatory and administrative side with real power independent of the chief executive. Membership on the Board should be weighted with members from traditional football countries with a history of responsible stewardship of the game. Again, member associations have a choice between being realistic and being politically-correct. Would the founders of any rational organization want to turn control of their organization over to officers and governors with no history of success in the organization’s enterprise?
FIFA is in need of fundamental reform. Absent such reform, any abatement of corruption will only be temporary.
David A. Plymyer