Comment

Christer's corner: Will the events in FIFA affect other sports federations?

Photo: Ed Coyle/Flickr

Photo: Ed Coyle/Flickr

03.06.2015

Comment by Christer Ahl
There are numerous examples of international federations with major and longstanding problems related to governance and corruption. How will the collapse of the FIFA regime affect the possibility of change in those federations?

The developments around FIFA in recent days are of course remarkable, even if many will say that what took place was bound to happen eventually. The scope and the severity of the problems had just gone too far. So many are now beginning to speculate about what the next steps in FIFA will be. Will real reform be forthcoming and how soon and in what form? Because we must realize that what we have seen is just the mere beginning and not the end of a change process.

However, it is indicative of FIFA’s (bad) influence on other organizations, particularly a number of international federations (IFs), that people are also starting to wonder how the collapse of the FIFA regime may affect the possibility of change elsewhere. There are, unfortunately, numerous examples of international federations with major and longstanding problems related to governance and corruption. Using the example, with which I am the most familiar, the International Handball Federation (IHF) is in many ways a smaller copy of FIFA, only with less exposure and public awareness because handball is a smaller sport and the money involved is at a more modest scale.

I do not remember exactly how many times I heard the IHF President defend questionable practices or proposals against criticism from IHF Council members or external critics, simply by arguing “but these are common methods or practices at FIFA”. And it was quite clear that the IHF President always saw Blatter as a ‘role model’, whose advice he frequently sought. While I think it is generally quite early to make firm predictions about some kind of ‘domino’ effect involving other sports federations, it would be possible to indicate some factors that may be relevant for the broader influence of events at FIFA.

How fundamental will the changes at FIFA turn out to be?
Those who have followed FIFA much more closely than I have, like the well-known investigative journalists Andrew Jennings and Jens Weinreich, would most likely argue that, for real change to happen, it is necessary to have both fundamental changes in the way FIFA is organized and operates, and wholesale changes in the elected bodies and the senior staff. Just one or the other will not be sufficient. And just getting rid of Blatter and having some cosmetic changes in the administrative regulations of FIFA would not have any effect on the situation in other IFs.

Therefore, it is significant to see what has now been outlined by the Chairman of FIFA’s Audit and Compliance Committee, namely the notion of an ‘implemented deep-rooted structural change’. This would involve, for instance, the composition and election of the Executive Committee. Ideally, equivalent changes should then also be undertaken at the continental level, both for the sake of more assured change in the world of football but also as a sufficient ‘demonstration effect’ for other sports and other IFs.

It also seems promising that both the U.S. legal authorities and their counterparts in other countries intend to continue their investigations, with the probability that the net will be cast increasingly wider. It is not quite enough that the worst culprits are evicted from positions in football. They also need to be the subjects of legal action. But the other side of the coin is of course that the new top team in FIFA must include the kind of persons who will really want to utilize a new structure and new operating procedures to turn things around permanently. And in this regard, it is not entirely reassuring to see which names are now coming forward as potential candidates for the presidency and for other top positions.

It is quite conceivable that someone like Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah will decide that he wants the presidency, in which case he will be hard to stop. As I see it, this could bring FIFA ‘out of the ashes into the fire’, and it certainly could have a chilling effect on those who desperately seek reform in other IFs. The IHF President would most likely be thrilled to see his old ‘partner in crime’ at the helm in FIFA.

Will the Swiss authorities finally be prepared to take serious action?
While the eventual reform and influx of new blood at FIFA will have an effect on other IFs and their ability and willingness to continue unsound governance practices and corrupt behavior, for me personally, the impact on other IFs is likely to depend even more on the future decisions of the Swiss authorities. At a time when the old, ‘convenient’ practices of Swiss banking secrecy have gradually had to make room for increased transparency and global cooperation, in the pursuit of tax evaders and money launderers, just perhaps the coddling and protection of Swiss-based international organizations may also be coming to an end.

Currently, the approximately 60 IFs (and also of course the IOC) which are based in Switzerland enjoy a very privileged status. They do not need to publish their financial accounts and they are exempt from Swiss anti-corruption laws. Essentially they can manage their affairs without any real oversight and any risk of external interference. In other words, unless we attach some faint hope to pressures from important sponsors, who do not want their reputation negatively affected, the viability of reform within IFs depends entirely on the willingness and ability of the members of the IFs to demand changes. As we all know, the IOC certainly does not see itself in having any role in interfering even with the most blatant wrongdoing within the individual IFs.

However, the scandals around FIFA, both in the past and certainly with their current culmination, appear to have accelerated the pressure from parliament members, senior government officials and the general public in Switzerland. Not just for reasons of national image, but simply because they share the global outrage over how certain IFs abuse their protected status, many influential persons and entities are now beginning to demand serious limitations in the privileges afforded the IFs. New legislation will thus be debated in the Swiss Parliament in the near future, and this may specifically include the notion that the presidents of IFs and similar entities might be made much more personally responsible. If this were to happen, it could certainly have a very chilling effect for those engaged in ‘questionable practices’.

How entrenched are the bad practices and their perpetrators in the respective IFs?
While it could make a difference if certain IFs no longer could use FIFA as an example and Blatter as a role model, and it certainly would be significant if the pressure from the Swiss authorities were to increase in a major way, much would still depend on how entrenched the governance problems and corruption are in each IF. The more progressive or comparatively innocent ones would be relatively more likely to react to what they see as the lessons from the FIFA developments and the potential Swiss legal action.

However, other IFs and their bosses may not be equally willing to mend their ways. It will remain a reality that virtually no other sport will be constantly in the limelight like football and FIFA. Many others are operating at a smaller scale and with less exposure. They may count on being able to sail by ‘under the radar’ of external scrutiny. Then it simply depends on just how unscrupulous and determined their leaders may be, in their pursuit of power and self-enrichment. And of course it will also depend on the extent to which the key stakeholders find it to be to their benefit to play along or, conversely, how powerless and vulnerable they would be if they attempted to ‘rock the boat.’ 

So, while I have personally always argued that the perpetuation of FIFA’s terrible example has been, and would be, a major obstacle in the efforts to get smaller IFs to clean up their act, I think it does not necessarily follow that the prospects of major change at FIFA will automatically change the mindsets and the practices everywhere else. It will remain necessary for the internal stakeholders to continue their struggle, albeit now perhaps with increased optimism, and it will remain important for external pressure to be kept up, be it from groups like Play the Game, from political authorities or from sensible sponsors.

  • John Johnsson, 10.06.2015 03:10:
     
    A good piece. It is not easy to come forward for the IF employees and the insiders themselves. I cannot come forward now but I am waiting for my opportuntity. I can strongly agree that many IFs are like heavenly kingdoms without anyone looking after except for the kings themselves.
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