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FIXING FIFA, FOR GOOD

June 15, 2015
June 15, 2015

Table of Contents
June 15, 2015

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FIXING FIFA, FOR GOOD

Top-down change is needed to reform a broken system. My idea: a Security Council--style ExCo with real veto power

WHAT NOW? What should FIFA do to reform itself now that Sepp Blatter has announced he's resigning after 17 years as FIFA president? And how will that process be affected by the ongoing legal investigations by the U.S. government (into soccer corruption) and Swiss authorities (into the bids for World Cup 2018, won by Russia and World Cup '22, won by Qatar)? The best person to ask might be Alexandra Wrage, a Canadian anti-bribery and good-governance expert who resigned from FIFA's reform committee in '13 after concluding that Blatter and other FIFA officials wanted "window dressing" (her words) but didn't welcome real change.

This is an article from the June 15, 2015 issue

"Every organization is capable of change, but the single most important point is the tone set by leadership," Wrage says. "So if the leaders stand out and say there will be zero tolerance for [improper behavior] going forward and anybody who breaks the rules will be fired, and that actually happens, people believe it very quickly. If there's more of a sense of looking the other way and saying the right things but not following through, then it won't."

After 17 years of looking the other way, Blatter has the chutzpah to say he wants to be the change agent, staying in office until a special congress elects his successor (no earlier than in December by FIFA rules) and pushing for reforms that Wrage's committee had recommended, only to be rejected by FIFA leadership. Those include term limits for the FIFA president and the 24 executive committee members, public release of their salaries and exhaustive background checks of officials conducted by a centralized FIFA office—not by FIFA's notoriously shady regional confederations. Those are all sound measures, but it's hard to put any faith in Blatter, who previously fought the proposals, or the 209-nation FIFA congress, which voted Blatter to another term just two days after the U.S. announced its indictments.

If Blatter has influence on the choice of his successor, it will likely be Kuwait's Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, a powerful member of the International Olympic Committee who joined FIFA's executive committee in April. But there will be other candidates too. Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, who casts himself as a reformer, received 73 votes (including that of the U.S.) to Blatter's 133 in the May 29 FIFA presidential election, and he has expressed interest in standing again. France's Michel Platini, the president of UEFA, Europe's governing body, might finally decide to run. But he has his own issues—he voted for Qatar 2022—and given the animosity toward UEFA in the rest of the world, it's hard to believe he'd draw the necessary support in the one-country, one-vote election.

Plenty of critics want to blow up the one-country, one-vote system, which gives as much power in FIFA elections to tiny Bhutan as to men's World Cup champion Germany. But doing so would 1) be virtually impossible politically; and 2) hamper some of the real development that has taken place in small countries with the aid that comes from the World Cup, which brought in $2.6 billion in profits in the last four-year cycle. Bhutan used the power of its FIFA vote—in the form of some $3 million in developmental money since 2012—to build soccer infrastructure and grow the game, leading in March to its landmark first World Cup--qualifying victory. Those are good things. What FIFA's development programs need is much more detailed oversight to ensure accountability and prevent aid money from disappearing into the back pockets of unscrupulous soccer officials around the globe.

As for FIFA's powerful executive committee, here's one reform idea: Turn it into a body modeled more closely on the United Nations Security Council. Any country that has won a men's or women's World Cup—currently Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Spain, the U.S. and Uruguay—becomes a permanent member. (This might push more nations to invest in women's soccer.) Ten additional members would come from other countries on a two-year basis and would have to include at least five women. On major votes made by the 209-member FIFA congress—on World Cup hosts or FIFA presidents—the new executive committee could veto the decision with a two-thirds majority.

Whatever direction FIFA takes in its reform, the current structure absolutely has to change. "The system is not designed for good governance," says Wrage. "Because of the structure, we need the right person at the top to drive that change. Then once you actually have the right statutes and controls in place, the leadership becomes less and less important because the system works."

One other change FIFA needs to make: It should repeal the bylaw installed two years ago that requires a FIFA presidential candidate to have spent at least two of the previous five years active in soccer. As it stands, that removes true outsiders who would be worthy candidates, like Kofi Annan, the former U.N. general secretary, or Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

Governance reform isn't sexy, but it's crucial if FIFA is to gain any credibility. And if FIFA can't change itself, it's good to know that outside forces like the U.S. investigation can. More arrests are expected, and if the Swiss probe into the bids for World Cups 2018 and '22 has as much rigor, it would be no surprise to see Qatar lose its World Cup. Accountability is a wonderful thing.

IF FIFA CAN'T CHANGE ITSELF, IT'S GOOD TO KNOW OUTSIDE FORCES CAN.
PHOTOALEXANDER HASSENSTEIN/FIFA/GETTY IMAGESLITTLE FISH, BIG FISH FIFA' s current setup gives tiny countries equal—some say inordinate—power on issues critical to the game.