Play the Game – Is FIFA capable of real change?

just how much change should we expect??

Some days ago, I wrote about the problems caused by a tendency to give far too little exposure to corruption and mismanagement in sports. I noted that these problems are regrettably very widespread but do not get much attention, in part because of frantic efforts to cover up the problems and in part due to a lack of investigative journalism in sports.
However, there are a couple of exceptions, in the form of organizations that are too big and too important to be able to stay under the radar. In this category we find the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Football Federation (FIFA). The image of IOC, notwithstanding some stories related to the decision to award the 2018 Winter Olympics to Korea, is currently less of an issue than it used to be in connection with the Games in Salt Lake City, and the notion of scandals in the IOC currently pales by comparison with what is constantly brewing regarding FIFA. So FIFA will be my topic.

But I will not use this posting to explain much about FIFA’s size, structure and basic operations. This information can be found in great detail on their web site . At least their transparency goes that far. And I will not delve into years of stories and accusations involving FIFA: despotism, large-scale bribery, election fraud, and misuse of resources under its current president Joseph (Sepp) Blatter. Andrew Jennings ( ) and , have done such a fantastic job over the years to document all these issues, that it would be both insulting and meaningless for me to try to summarize all that here.

Nevertheless, many readers have probably found it unavoidable to read recent stories about strong suspicions related to the decisions to award the hosting of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup to Russia and Qatar respectively. And many are likely to have heard about accusations of wrongdoing and subsequent withdrawals or expulsions of Executive Committee members, in connection with the recent FIFA Congress where Blatter was reelected yet again. Revelations related to a vast bribery affair, involving a Swiss sports marketing firm paying millions and millions in personal bribes to the top-level FIFA officials (in exchange for obtaining TV rights) are still pending and brewing. Essentially I am reminding about these issues to make clear that corruption is alive and ‘well’ in FIFA as we speak.

So the real issue is actually: can one attach any credibility to the suggestions (by Blatter) that FIFA is really going to be turning things around firmly and quickly, and is there reason to believe that the many new processes that very recently were set in motion by the President and the Executive Committee will actually amount to more than window-dressing. Those who understand how enormous an impact it would have on sports corruption everywhere if FIFA actually managed to change its ways so completely, may of course like to take an optimistic view. And there are also many who think that Blatter, despite what he says in public, is so well aware of his dismal personal reputation and the awful image of FIFA, that he just might want to try to leave a legacy of being the person who should get credit for turning things around, rather than getting the blame for having created the pervasively corrupt atmosphere.

Personally, I find it tough to believe in the prospects of real, major change, when it all depends on a President who is not even willing to admit openly how bad the situation is, on an Executive Committee where the majority of the members seem to be under a major cloud of suspicion (to say the least), and on the broader group of FIFA insiders where many would stand to lose a lot. But I am willing to remain optimistic while awaiting the deadlines and the actions that have been promised. The structures that have been set up seem just fine on paper but, as we all know, it is action and results that count.

Four Task Forces have been established: Revision of the FIFA Statutes; Revision of FIFA’s Code of Ethics: Transparency and Compliance; and Football 2014 (focus on rules, refereeing, women’s football, competitions etc.). These Task Forces will report to an overarching Good Governance Committee comprised of representatives for broad spectrums of stakeholders inside and outside football. This Committee is described as a ‘solutions committee’ that will oversee the reforms of FIFA. The Task Forces will report in stages until March 2012, and the Good Governance process will continue until the FIFA Congress in June 2013. However, several segments are scheduled to be ready for approval throughout 2012.

It seems that a lot will depend on the clout and the independence of the Good Governance Committee. But the real test will come when this Committee reports its findings and recommendations to the FIFA Executive Committee. Will they listen, and will they be prepared to accept what is recommended?? Clearly, the real intentions of the powerful Blatter will make all the difference at that point in time. And it will be interesting, and telling, to observe what type of recommendations will be emerging during this process and how they are received when they are officially put forward.

The problem is that the changes that are needed are absolutely fundamental, or even earth-shattering, by FIFA’s standard. Minor tweaking will not serve any purpose, even if it is ‘dressed up’ to look significant. That, if anything, would simply serve to confirm suspicions that real change was never intended. But even smaller installments of significant changes would be a positive signal. Not just the world of football but the entire world of sports will be anxious to see the outcome.