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.