The End of a FIFA Fiefdom?

Allegations of corruption have dogged FIFA for years–particularly under the leadership of Sepp Blatter, who has been FIFA President since 1998–but with little impact. The buildup of controversy surrounding the bidding contest for the 2022 World Cup, however, may prove the tipping point in Blatter’s reign. Early last month, Michael Garcia, FIFA’s independent investigator and a former U.S. Attorney, submitted to FIFA’s Ethics Committee a 350-page report on corruption in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding contests. The report purportedly details millions of dollars in bribes paid to FIFA executives in order for Qatar to host the 2022 tournament. A few weeks later, the chairmen of the Ethics Committee released a statement affirming that, in accordance with FIFA’s Code of Ethics, if Garcia initiates proceedings against specific individuals based on his report, only the final decisions (not the report itself or any other preliminary materials) will be made public.

The next day Garcia went rogue. He called publicly for the report’s widespread release (with appropriate redactions as necessary to protect sources). His call was quickly echoed by several members of FIFA’s Executive Committee, including Sunil Gulati, the head of US Soccer, Jordan’s Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, and CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb. In addition to the revolt that may be brewing within, external pressures are mounting on FIFA as well, with calls for the release of Garcia’s report coming from Michel Platini, head of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), as well as U.S. Senator Bob Casey and the international NGO Transparency International. And in Switzerland, where FIFA is based, last April the Federal Council–apparently in direct response to concerns about Swiss-based international sports federations that have been “discredited repeatedly by corruption scandals”–reversed its longstanding position and declared that “private corruption will be prosecuted automatically, even where it does not lead to competitive distortions.”

All this activity is honing in on one specific question, which will likely be definitively answered at the June 2015 FIFA Congress: Will Qatar keep the 2022 World Cup?

Soccer fans and regular GAB readers (see here, here, and here) will know that corruption is not necessarily incompatible with FIFA’s financial success. In the past, Blatter has been able to shrug off corruption scandals because, as a member of the Executive Committee last month admitted, bribery accusations have not affected the “business side” of FIFA operations. This, however, is exactly what the Qatar World Cup threatens to do–which is why Blatter and FIFA may be finally forced to confront the culture of corruption associated with the organization.

FIFA makes its money from broadcast rights and sponsorship deals, both reliant upon how many people tune in to watch a tournament. Professional soccer players do not make their money from the World Cup; they make it playing for professional clubs year in and year out. The tremendously increased risk of injury that accompanies playing in 120°F (common for a Qatari summer) is not worth the risk. What if many of the world’s best players decide not to participate? A World Cup without the stars—without Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, or Muller—does not make money. The heat will affect fans as well. Part of the appeal of the World Cup is the pandemonium–the stadiums packed with Brazilian Samba dancers, Ghanaian drummers, singing Germans in lederhosen. Will fans fill seats in 120°F stadiums?

This is why corruption may finally have hit FIFA where it hurts. Blatter did not react to fraudulent billing nearly tripling the cost of the Brasilia stadium, and he is not reacting to the more than one worker dying per day building Qatari stadiums, because he knows that all controversy fades when the starting whistle blows and billions of people turn on their TVs to watch the beautiful game. But billions of people will not tune in to watch second-string teams play in half-empty stadiums. This, unquestionably, is a threat to the business side of things.

Blatter’s last-ditch solution is to push for Qatar to host the first “Winter World Cup,” moving the tournament to November or January. But this is proving a difficult sell, as it entails a request that the European leagues–the wealthiest and most profitable leagues in the world–shut down for a month mid-season. And a winter world cup would not solve the increased injury risk problem: the World Cup is physically rigorous, and players need one to two months to recuperate; a winter tournament would have players back and playing for their club teams within a week, vastly increasing their risk of injury.

The one obvious solution is to move the World Cup, but stripping Qatar of the right to host would require disclosures and explanations of how it won the bidding contest in the first place. Moreover, while there is some legal uncertainty as to whether the Ethics Committee actually has the power to strip a nation of the right to host, Blatter has hemmed himself in by publicly denying the Committee holds this right.

The Qatar question may be the first harbinger of the end of Blatter’s long reign. He is adamant about not moving the Cup, and seems willing to risk the Executive Committee’s gross malfeasance finally affecting FIFA’s bottom line. This gamble may provide the impetus needed to bring about change from within, as his control over FIFA will not withstand a loss in profitability. With a generational divide emerging within the Executive Committee–the members who called for the release of Garcia’s report were among the newest members to join–a changing of the guard with an increased emphasis on transparency may not be too far off.

9 thoughts on “The End of a FIFA Fiefdom?

  1. I’m glad we can start talking about the World Cup again! You point to a very interesting – and potentially powerful – confluence of factors that might lead FIFA to change its ways, Melanie. Corruption clearly features rather prominently in the organization. But I doubt we would be as concerned about a clean bidding process if bribery resulted in, say, France as the venue. I wonder, then, how much of a role corruption would play in a boycott of the Qatar World Cup. Will countries send their B Teams because of the alleged bribery or because of the heat, season, risk of injury etc.? Of course the weather situation derives from the fact that the event is in Qatar due to bribery but do you think the secondary connection to corruption would be significant enough to have an impact on FIFA’s actions?

    • Your observation is spot on, Liz. I don’t think gross corruption would have much of an affect on FIFA decision making if the bidding process had resulted in France (to use your example) being chosen as the host, because the tournament itself would probably be a success.

      National football associations may face increasing pressure to boycott a Qatar Cup due to corruption (or, more likely, human rights offenses), but I doubt it will be significantly more than they faced in the build up to Brazil. FIFA has had plenty of corruption scandals in the past, but has by and large just shrugged them off.

      Qatar is different not because of the degree of corruption involved (though, if the allegations are true, one could argue the corruption was on a substantively different level), but because the alleged bribery would have led FIFA to make a decision that will cost the organization (and it’s sponsors) a lot of money. That’s the line in the sand, and I think that crossing it may be the push the organization needs to see a real change in leadership.

  2. Melanie: I was originally skeptical of your prediction that the (likely corrupt) decision to locate the World Cup in Qatar would finally break the Blatter regime, but recent developments indicate that you may be onto something: Emirates Airlines just pulled its FIFA sponsorship, apparently because of how the recent scandals have damaged FIFA’s impage. See here: https://en-maktoob.news.yahoo.com/uaes-emirates-airline-end-fifa-sponsorship-154804724–finance.html

    • Matthew: this is encouraging indeed. I’ll confess I was a bit surprised to hear the news, given that last June of the six official FIFA partners, Emirates Airlines was the only one not to call for investigations into the Qatar bid. But their decision comes at a good time. Sony’s sponsorship expires at the end of the year. If FIFA is unable to negotiate an extension with Sony, or if the new deal doesn’t extend through 2022, that may raise high level questions on whether Qatar 2022 will actually provide value for money.

    • I’m still skeptical of a move actually occurring or of Blatter losing his position at the next election, though I hope I’m wrong–and Melanie is right to say that the business connection here presents the best shot at this happening. Maybe I’m just too inured to worries about international sporting events that fade away by the time the actual event starts–will there really be that many players that choose not to go?

  3. Great post, Melanie. It is sad that the prospect of less exciting games rather than labor violations, etc. might finally be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when it comes to the global community and FIFA getting serious about corruption here. I haven’t been following this closely enough to know for sure, so I’m wondering if there are any implications for the 2018 World Cup in Russia as well now that the entire bidding process is tainted. My suspicion is that Russia will be undisturbed since it’s a much more practical place to host the World Cup than Qatar, but it looks like there have been some murmurings about reconsidering its bid as well (http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/jun/02/russia-2018-world-cup-vote-rerun-qatar-gerry-sutcliffe). Interestingly, Michael Garcia is banned from entering the country for his prosecution of Viktor Bout.

    • Anna, I agree with you that Russia will keep the Cup, for the very reason you note: it’s a more practical place to hold the tournament. It’s also, in my opinion, too late to move it; there aren’t a lot of countries who could step in and host an international sporting event of this size with under six years to prepare. I think that the calls for Russia to be stripped of the Cup are more political maneuverings (we hear a lot of them from English politicians; more sour grapes (England also bid on the 2018 Cup) and politicians wanting to throw out soundbites as opposed to really calling for change).

      There’s still enough time to find a new host for 2022, which is why the issue has stayed in the press for so long. A decision needs to be made in the next year though; hopefully we see pressure continue to mount.

  4. Interesting article and the final point is a good one, hopefully with new members there will be greater transparency. My worry is that once the media dies down, corruption will still exist and come around again. Investigations take years and although the Garcia report was published it was only through restricted viewing.

    Can you ever eradicate corruption though? Money talks, and as Friedman once said Business is Business with Business. Why not have a look at our University Blog on Event Corruption heavily focusing on FIFA? It will be great if you can comment on our blog… https://eventsglos.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/event-corruption-money-or-morals/

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