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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The U.S. Indictments of FIFA’s Corrupt Officials Are Legally, Morally, and Politically Justified

For avid soccer fans and students of anticorruption, last week’s announcement that top FIFA officials had been indicted by U.S. authorities was not all that shocking. Commentators on this blog have been documenting FIFA’s collision course with the criminal justice system for some time now (see here, here, and here). But as American law comes to bear on the world’s most powerful sporting organization, it has caught the attention of millions. The reaction of many has been a wry “How fitting? The Americans going after soccer, and relying on tenuous legal reasoning to boot.”

Harvard Law School Professor Noah Feldman articulated the critique in a recent Bloomberg article, entitled “The U.S. is Treating FIFA Like the Mafia.” Feldman’s overarching point is that, while FIFA may be a problematic organization, the U.S. enforcement action reflects dubious politics more than genuine legal interest. Professor Feldman raises three main objections to the DOJ’s indictments–focused, respectively, on the law, policy, and politics of the indictments. First, with respect to the law, he casts doubt on the legal basis for prosecuting FIFA officials under the U.S. Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), given that the alleged offenses occurred on foreign soil, and suggests more generally that the entire case is absurd because RICO is designed to go after organized criminal enterprises, not sporting organizations like FIFA (or groups within FIFA). Second, Professor Feldman contends that, as a matter of policy, even if the U.S. has a sound legal basis for prosecution, exercising its jurisdiction in this case is inappropriate due to the lack of a strong U.S. interest in misconduct within FIFA, given that the U.S. cares much less about soccer than most other countries do. Third, and related to the preceding point, Professor Feldman suggests that the political fallout from the indictments is likely to be damaging to the U.S. He argues that the underlying premise of the RICO action–that FIFA (or a group within FIFA) is a criminal enterprise–is “incendiary,” and will be viewed as an imperialistic power play by the United States against soccer’s true fan-base (a.k.a, the rest of the world).

In my view, Professor Feldman is wrong on the law, shortsighted about the scope of U.S. interests in the alleged criminal conduct, and overly pessimistic about the political repercussions of the U.S. action. If the facts alleged can be proven, the U.S. is legally, morally, and politically justified in treating the indicted FIFA officials as RICO offenders.

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