FIFA under pressure to reform

Photo: Henrik Christensen

ITUC's Sharan Burrow wants FIFA to use their influence in Qatar to improve the conditions for migrant workers. Photo: Henrik Christensen

Unions and the sporting goods industry have had enough of FIFA and demand a showdown with the past and reform of football’s governing body. At last week’s forum on the future of FIFA, held in the European Parliament, the tone against FIFA sharpened.

The International Trade Union Coalition (ITUC) is uncompromising in their demands of significant improvements on the working conditions related to the preparations for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

“The next FIFA president, whoever wins, has to deliver on the migrant workers’ issue in Qatar immediately,” said Sharan Burrow, secretary general of ITUC.  

Burrow is in Brussels for a forum debating the future of football and the upcoming presidential election. The forum is organised by FIFA reform group New FIFA Now and the European Parliament.

“Up to 7000 migrant workers will die before a ball is kicked. That is unacceptable and we demand that a new FIFA president will act and do something about these unhuman living conditions,” Burrow said at the forum.

The union leader aimed a hard blow at FIFA’s lack of willingness to pressure the Qatari government into providing better working conditions for migrant workers. Burrow referred to the ITUC’s report on the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. The report is based on data provided by the government of Qatar itself and is horrifc reading.

“1.8 million migrant workers live like modern slaves, and are payed 1.5 dollars an hour with the risk of losing their lives every day,” Burrow said.  

With Sharan Burrow in front, the ITUC has been active in the establishment of the grassroots network, New FIFA Now. Along with European politicians, human rights organisations, Transparency International, fan organisations and others, they have tried to pressure FIFA into changing. Blatter’s stepping down as FIFA president and the ongoing race to take over the available post, has given the ITUC and New FIFA Now a surprising opportunity to take the demands for reform and action to the top of the agenda.

“We believe that FIFA can make a difference in Qatar if they take a social responsibility. Up to now it´s the profit ruling,” Burrow said.

The future remains unclear
During the meeting in the European Parliament, neither the ITUC, New FIFA Now nor anybody else were given many answers to what a future FIFA president will do about Qatar. Four of the five presidential candidates chose not to participate in the debate and in a way, this forum proved an example of FIFA’s traditional culture and lack of transparency.

Of the five candidates vying for FIFA presidency, only the French diplomat and former FIFA employee, Jérôme Champagne, was present at the meeting to present his visions for FIFA reform. And as for Qatar, the ITUC and Sharan Burrow did not get many promises from Champagne.

“If I get elected FIFA president, I´ll talk seriously with the Emir of Qatar. As far as I know he wants change, but struggles to get the backing of the parliament,” Champagne said.

“That’s not good enough,” said Burrow in reply.

“He is running a campaign and there are tactical issues to consider. If elected, we’ll expect Jérôme Champagne to deliver on workers’ conditions. We are more afraid that candidates like Sheik Salman, who himself is a human rights abuser, will be elected. If he wins, the campaign for an independent and new FIFA will go on,” Burrow said.

Commercial pressure
The unions were not the only ones who had found their way to Brussels. That FIFA presidential hopefuls fell like flies with many media outlets to follow, did not cause everybody to pass on a chance to publicly speak on the issue football’s future. To rows behind Sharan Burrow, was Alberto Bichi. Bichi is secretary-general of the Federation of the European Sporting Goods Industry (FESI), and represents more than 1800 companies.

“It is serious. We assume a new FIFA president understands the situation and will lead FIFA in another direction,” said Bichi at the forum.   

Bichi spoke frankly about the possible economic consequences for FIFA if they do not manage to ensure better governance and put an end to this corruption-ridden culture. To the question of whether the companies that he represents are willing to stop their sponsoring of FIFA tournaments and programmes, the answer was ‘yes’.

“We will set targets to reach and measurable goals for good governance in our contracts with FIFA. If they fail to live up to these standards we´ll cut the money,” Bichi said to the forum participants.

These are serious demands for FIFA and a serious warning, that the European sporting goods manufacturers table here. Bichi represents large companies like German Adidas and Puma, and Italian Diadora and Lotto, all of them companies with large economic interests in football.

During the past year, New FIFA Now has succeeded in establishing a dialogue with several of the big FIFA sponsors, pressuring them into taking a stand regarding the conditions in FIFA. In December 2015, five of the sponsors wrote a letter to the FIFA Executive Committee, clearly signaling that there was a wish for a radical change of culture as well as independent supervision of the FIFA reform process. The five sponsors were Coca-Cola, VISA, McDonald’s, Budweiser and Adidas.

“We are really satisfied to succeed in getting the FIFA sponsors onboard in demanding FIFA to change and reform,” said Jaimie Fuller, Australian businessman behind New FIFA Now.

“To have Alberto Bichi to come to Brussels and be so clear is fantastic,” Fuller said.

If Bichi’s manufacturers should pull their economic support, how does he see their involvement in the world of football?

“We are already working on programmes and projects targeting grassroots football. This is an area we will prioritize in the future. We need FIFA, and FIFA needs us. If that is to continue, FIFA needs to change and now is the time,” Bichi stated.

On 26 February, we will get a qualified hint as to whether the time is actually up for a reform of FIFA or not. At the Extraordinary FIFA Congress in Zürich, the presidential election will be decided. Votes from 105 member nations are needed to fill the empty seat after Blatter. No football federation was present at the forum in Brussels and only one candidate made use of the chance to have an open dialogue. The future of football is still decided behind closed doors. But for a change, the new FIFA president will, from day one, be under heavy pressure from the sport’s stakeholders to deliver new culture-changing reforms of the world governing body of football.


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