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Will FIFA give us reform – or give us the finger?

Photo: justinshanks/Flickr

Photo: justinshanks

Chances are that this Friday 26 February will mark the old FIFA’s ultimate defiance of the pressure exerted over five years by most of football’s fans and stakeholders. There will be reform, but will there be change?

On a chilly spring evening in Zürich eight years ago, I bumped into a party of three fellow journalists in an unusually merry state of mind, far from their usually dogged and determined appearances. It was not, as I would normally suspect, the local Swiss beer that lifted their spirits, but certain sensational events of the day they had just spent as audience in the local court of nearby Zug.

What the three colleagues – German reporters Thomas Kistner and Jens Weinreich accompanied by the Scotsman Andrew Jennings – had just heard in court, surpassed their wildest expectations. In spite of having digged into FIFA’s sinister affairs for around a decade, they had never imagined that this Wednesday 12 March, the public prosecutor and a series of witnesses from the collapsed ISL sports marketing company would confirm that corruption was an integral part of FIFA’s daily business, and that leading FIFA officials were involved in a corruption scheme worth more than one hundred million US dollars.

This was explosive news, worthy of immediate global attention. But they happened to be the only foreign reporters present in Zug. They were pretty marginalised in the sports and media world for their uncompromising attitude. And when a journalist from international news agency Reuters who could not waste a whole day on a trivial court case, called them to get an update, he apparently decided that this was not of great interest to his readers.

Thus, the greatest known systematic corruption scheme in international sport to that date went largely unnoticed by the world public, and FIFA’s crooks could continue stealing from football without disturbances. At least until 17 October 2010 when The Sunday Times broke a story on corruption in the selection process of the FIFA World Cup hosts for 2018 and 2022, rolling a snowball that would gradually evolve into the avalanche of corruption scandals we know today.

Silence has been broken
When FIFA’s congress opens today Friday the 26 February everything seems to have changed. The silence and indifference is definitively broken. For the past five years, FIFA has been under enormous and growing pressure from fans, journalists, politicians, sponsors, NGO’s and other stakeholders. TV crews are swirling around the candidates for the FIFA Presidency, and newspapers and websites are overflowing with analysis of the proposed political reforms.

Everything seems to have changed in the past eight years, except for two things: A weather forecast promising a sunny, frosty morning and a world organisation for football that seems to defy the worldwide calls for fundamental change.

Acting FIFA President Issa Hayatou has urged the 209 member federations to adapt the full reform package proposed by a committee chaired by the former IOC general director François Carrard. This package contains a number of proposals that the congress clearly rejected only three years ago, such as integrity checks of FIFA top people, term limits (12 years) for elected officials and disclosure of salaries and compensation. Moreover, the reforms will separate the political and management powers.

Reforms designed to keep confederations in control
It will be foolish to claim that these reforms will make no difference for FIFA at the overall global level. Hayatou is right in insisting that this reform package is essential to protect FIFA’s reputation and – perhaps more importantly – its current legal status as a “victim” of corruption in the current FBI proceedings against individual FIFA leaders. Should FIFA as an organisation be regarded as a complicit of corruption, then the very existence of FIFA is at risk.

This is the threat that Hayatou, who has his own track record of alleged corruption and mismanagement, hopes will convince if not the minds, then at least the voting fingers of the national football leaders.But it would be equally stupid to claim that the reforms will lead FIFA into a transparent, corruption-free future. The reforms are carefully designed to ensure that the six FIFA confederations – the associations who rule football at the continental level – keep their firm grip over FIFA’s powers. 

One thing that the reform does not address is one of the most important reasons for the political dysfunction of FIFA: that only the FIFA President is elected by congress, while all other members of the Executive Committee (in the future: the FIFA Council) is appointed by the six confederations.

This problem is aggravated by the fact that, as the FBI indictment and various other cases show, the confederations are just as permeated by corruption as the central FIFA body. There is a high probability that corruption may simply be decentralized from Zürich to the six confederation headquarters.

It is true that the reform package will also introduce some basic good governance principles in the statutes of the national FAs and the confederations. However, the question remains to what extend these measures will actually lead to substantially better governance cultures in the lower half of the FIFA pyramid.

Election conspiracies
The field of candidates for the FIFA Presidency does not provide much hope for real change either, especially not if you regard who are considered to be favourites. The international observers seem to agree that the two candidates that have shown most commitment to democratic principles and public dialogue, Jordan’s Prince Ali and the Frenchman Jérôme Champagne, do not stand a chance to survive the hurdles of FIFA’s election conspiracies.

The two favourites confirm that the alleged idealism driving the reforms is not a currency that will pay your way to FIFA’s Presidency. The Swiss Secretary General of UEFA, Gianni Infantino, has shown very little appetite for combating corruption when it came close to UEFA’s own strategic interests, and given his role in obstructing FIFA reforms in recent years, it is hard to understand how he has convinced most European nations who are longing for real change, to support him as the front figure for reform.

However, the person mentioned most often as the strongest contender, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa from Bahrain, now president of the Asian Football Council, radiates more than any other candidate a complete contempt for democracy, transparency and public debate. He is not only denying persistent allegations of personal involvement in human rights breaches, mismanagement and corruption – he is consequently shying away from public debate and direct confrontation with the media, and moreover his lawyers from the ill-reputed Schilling Law Group are busy sending legal threats to media houses, bloggers and other people who have questioned Sheikh Salman’s integrity.

If, as many expect, Sheikh Salman is elected FIFA president today, it will be thanks to a hitherto unseen geopolitical interest in world football’s top post. The organisers of the next two FIFA World Cups, Qatar and Russia, are investing huge powers in securing that the next FIFA President will not question the legitimacy of their hosting rights, no matter how much corruption might surface in the Swiss and U.S. police investigations.

Sheikh Salman is their man. Qatar has been known to support him from the start, just as the Olympic king-maker and FIFA Executive Committee member, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, does. Russia’s sports minister (and football president and FIFA ExCo member) declared his backing for Gianni Infantino in early February, but this support only lasted until his boss, Vladimir Putin, held a fruitful meeting with the king of Bahrain.

It was a Russian-Arab alliance that secured the victory of the German Thomas Bach when contending for the Presidency of the International Olympic Committee. Today, a similar alliance may make Sheikh Salman the first Asian president of FIFA. And the first with a proven, although denied, involvement in a repressive regime’s persecution of political opponents.

FIFA has indeed been shaken by all those fans, NGO activists, journalists, politicians, police authorities, transnational institutions, players and sponsors who have denounced corruption and called for reform over the past five years. FIFA may give us reform today. But at the same time, FIFA may give us the finger.

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