Living in Fear: Why FIFA Has Been Corrupt for Too Long

October 1, 2015


Last week, Swiss authorities opened criminal proceedings on FIFA President Sepp Blatter, charging him with misappropriation and criminal mismanagement. This is just the most recent instance of a FIFA official facing corruption-related charges. In 2011, two high-level FIFA bureaucrats were arrested for selling their votes in the World Cup voting process. In May 2015, fourteen high-level FIFA officers were indicted in a United States Department of Justice report alleging racketeering, wire fraud, and money-laundering conspiracies. Seven officials were arrested through that report. Two weeks ago, after a few months of relative normalcy in FIFA, General Undersecretary (Blatter’s right hand man) Jerome Valcke was suspended from his position despite the absence of criminal charges against him. Even the favorite to succeed Blatter and “clean up” FIFA, Michel Platini, is currently under investigation for supposedly receiving shady money from Blatter in 2011. I could go on and on, but you get the point. FIFA management, to put it bluntly, is a royal shit-show.

No professional sports organization has crumbled as quickly and widely as FIFA has. It shouldn’t be a surprise, since FIFA has so much more influence, both politically and economically, over the world than any other sports organization (NFL, MLB, etc.). In its 2014 end-of-year financial summary, FIFA reported over 5.3 billion USD of total company revenue. As a comparison, the NFL’s 2014 financial report stated a record-breaking total revenue of over 1 billion USD. To be fair, 2014 was a World Cup year, so those FIFA numbers are augmented due to the flagship tournament, but that’s still a huge chunk of change. They say the higher you climb, the harder you fall, and that seems to ring true with FIFA.

A recurring theme I noticed while researching for this piece was fear. Fear is everywhere in FIFA. Why do countries still vote for Sepp Blatter when corruption is very clearly everywhere in his regime? How did Blatter get 133 votes in the most recent FIFA election (May 2015), which was AFTER many corruption scandals had already come to light? How can people actually believe that Blatter will eliminate corruption in FIFA as he promised after his 18 years in office seemed to cultivate corruption rather than discourage it? I’m not sure member countries agree with or support Blatter, nor do they want the corruption to continue, but one thing is clear: fear of retribution from FIFA is everywhere. It’s like elementary school, when that one bully is torturing kids left and right, and everyone knows it’s wrong, but they don’t intervene… because they’re afraid the bully might torture them next.

Blatter used a system where he effectively bought votes in elections, but it was legal within FIFA rules. The voting process is technically anonymous, however in the corruption-laced organization that is FIFA, countries’ “anonymous” selections become common knowledge. Blatter talks to representatives from small, poor, struggling nations in areas like Central America, Asia, and Africa, and promise them FIFA development money to support and expand their soccer facilities and promote the sport in the respective country. These countries have pretty much no choice; they must vote for Blatter or else face the consequences of minimized funding if he is re-elected without their vote.

In 2011, Grant Wahl, an American soccer journalist, ran for FIFA President. If you have the time, I highly suggest reading Wahl’s full article. It’s a really interesting piece that details exactly why FIFA’s electoral system is terribly flawed. Anyways, Wahl proposed a platform including tons of positive changes both on and off the field, promising term limits for FIFA presidents, the release all internal FIFA documents to the public to prove/disprove how corrupt the organization actually is, the hiring of a female General Secretary (the highest appointed position, since all 24 committee members at the time were men), and the introduction of goal-line technology during games to ensure all calls are correct. Sounds to me like a great candidate to bring FIFA out from under the burden of organizational-wide corruption and to improve on-field play.

It’s so sad that a candidate with such positive reformation plans didn’t just lose, but couldn’t even get on the ballot, especially since he wasn’t repressed by FIFA rules; anyone can run for President. You don’t have to be a certain age, involved in FIFA for x number of years, etc. One feat must be accomplished to get on the official ballot: a national federation must nominate you. One out of the two hundred and nine federations. Easy, right? Wrong.

Wahl’s article explains how he talked to and met with a bunch of countries’ federations, including some high-profile ones, but was not able to get a nomination. To take a direct quote from the article,“They fear the negative reaction down the road from Blatter and FIFA.”

This quote epitomizes FIFA’s current system. It’s impossible for an outsider, a level-headed soccer journalist who is promoting positive change for the organization, to even get on the official ballot. So, then who does get on the ballot? Often, no one. Blatter hasn’t been opposed by a serious candidate since…pretty much ever. It’s because those who are already knee-deep in the organizational-wide corruption scandals owe Blatter, and would never oppose him by backing cleaner candidates. Countries are scared to support the best candidates because they know that “King Sepp” will seek retribution in future FIFA practices: World Cup voting, funding distribution, etc.

To be honest, I was so happy when Blatter was charged last week. It’s the beginning of the end of Blatter’s dictatorship of FIFA. It’s time for reform and change. Once Blatter is ousted (hopefully in February 2016), FIFA can move on to a future not of corruption and scandal, but rather of positive change and meaningful transformations.

Nick Gavio
Nick is the Voice's former editorial board chair. Follow him on Twitter at @nickgavio, where he primarily retweets cute puppy videos.

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