FIFA Can and Should Do More To Crack Down on Corruption in International Soccer

Just over one year ago, in June 2019, Ahmad Ahmad, the president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and a Vice President of FIFA (international soccer’s governing body), who had long been dogged by reports of corruption, was detained by French police at a luxury hotel in Paris. Eight months later, in February 2020, the accounting firm PwC released an audit of CAF’s finances, documenting scores of financial irregularities by Ahmad and his colleagues, including an alleged kickback scheme involving a company run by a friend of Ahmad that did business with CAF.

CAF is just the latest in a long line of international soccer organizations beset by corruption scandals. Corruption in international soccer, long the subject of rumor and speculation, first made mainstream headlines back in 2015, when the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed a series of indictments against officials in FIFA and the regional soccer federations for North and South American (CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, respectively). Those indictments—and the resulting public outcry—forced FIFA, CONCACAF, and CONMEBOL to adopt a series of structural anticorruption measures, such as publicizing financial statements and creating independent audit committees.

Unfortunately, those reforms are not enough. The alleged corruption by Ahmad and his CAF colleagues is not anomalous, but rather symptomatic of two important factors that will continue to contribute to corruption in international soccer, notwithstanding the reforms implemented by FIFA and a few other federations in the aftermath of the 2015 indictments.

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Reforming FIFA: Why Recent Reforms Provide Reason for Hope

Over a year has passed since Gianni Infantino was elected President of FIFA. When elected, Infantino promised to reform the organization and win back the trust of the international football community following the numerous incidents of corruption that preceded his tenure as President (see here and here). Corruption not only existed at the executive level of FIFA, but also permeated down to the playing field, where incidents of match fixing and referee bribery were widespread. On the day he was elected, Infantino remarked, “FIFA has gone through sad times, moments of crisis, but those times are over. We need to implement the reform and implement good governance and transparency.”

Yet despite some reforms in the past year, a recent Transparency International report–which surveyed 25,000 football fans from over 50 countries—showed that the public still lacks confidence in the organization, with 97% of fans still worried about corruption, especially match fixing and bribery of officials. While the results show some improvement compared to the previous year, the numbers should worry both Infantino and FIFA: 53% of fans do not trust FIFA, only 33% of fans believe FIFA is actively working against corruption in football, and only 15% of fans have more confidence in FIFA now than they did during last year’s corruption scandal.

The public’s distrust of FIFA is certainly understandable, as is a degree of cynicism regarding Infantino’s promise to clean up the organization. After all, Sepp Blatter ran on a similar platform to Infantino when he elected President in 1998, also claiming that he was going to reform FIFA. Yet despite the lack of confidence in Infantino and FIFA, there are a few reasons to believe that change may be occurring within the organization, and that FIFA, under Infantino’s leadership, may be making strides in the right direction. Since Infantino’s election, FIFA has undertaken the following steps to curb corruption within football and the organization:

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