FIFA’s Reforms; More Smoke and Mirrors?

Sepp Blatter has announced how FIFA plans to improve its governance procedures and also to weed out corrupt practices. The ideas outlined on 20 July might sound plausible enough but they lack two crucial things; independent oversight and faith that those in charge of implementing reforms are really capable of carrying them through.

FIFA, understandably, is trying to move on from the worst set of scandals in its 111 year history. 14 current and former FIFA members are currently being investigated for a legion of alleged misdemeanours, and the great and good within the organisation appear to realise that FIFA simply cannot carry on pretending it is business as usual. It’s with that in mind that Sepp Blatter, the current President, has announced a set of reforms at a press conference in Zürich (see here for a video of the speech he gave). He began by announcing that he would not be standing for president when the next election for that position is held. This will, so we discovered, be on 26th February 2016.

The reforms themselves stem from the first FIFA Executive Committee meeting since a tumultuous FIFA congress in late May and were described by one FIFA official as a “watershed moment” in FIFA’s history. Leaving aside the surreal attempts by a British comedian to make a farce out of the proceedings (see here to watch that particular escapade), Blatter outlined five key reforms that he felt would clean up the organisation’s workings.

  • Transparency over the salaries of top FIFA officials
  • Term limits for top FIFA officials
  • A taskforce, headed by a neutral chairperson, will be set up to investigate whether, and if so which, further ethics reforms were needed.
  • FIFA’s 27 person executive committee will in all likelihood be reduced in number and it will also be elected by the 209 national federations and not through the six regional confederations.
  • Enhanced integrity checks are to be brought in for FIFA executive members

At first glance, these moves may look reasonable and forward-thinking. But the more one analyses what they are likely to mean in practice, the less convinced one becomes that they are going to mean anything substantive. Blatter has, for example, now clearly and unambiguously stated that he will be standing down; but he still has seven months to ensure that his successor – a successor who will be voted for by the same people who have been exceptionally reluctant to get rid of Blatter – does not tread all over his legacy. The chances of a genuinely new face taking over with no links to Blatter are subsequently limited a best.

It is easier to be slightly more positive about both bringing in transparency in terms of what FIFA officials earn and also in limiting the time that they can spend in office. However, if actually revealing how much the big hitters in an organisation earn is seen as a flagship reform, then that alone tells us plenty about how much else needs to be done.

The taskforce might also sound like something to be welcomed. Tough questions being asked by tough-speaking experts can only be a good thing, no? But even in Blatter’s speech he began to sow the seeds of doubt about what sort of independence this taskforce will enjoy; the chairman, for example, is going to be chosen in consultation with the presidents of FIFA’s regional confederations. They are very unlikely to opt for someone who they think is going to publicly read them the riot act. It is also unlikely that the 209 national federations will opt for sets of radical new thinkers when thinking about who should sit on the new-look executive. There will certainly be more transparency, but whether that is enough to bring with it cultural change remains very much to be seen.

Finally, the integrity checks appear like they are going to be carried out by FIFA’s own ethics committee – a committee that has proven to be toothless thus far and is, again, clearly not a body with independence hardwired in to its DNA. Anyone who has seen how the Premier League in England conducts integrity checks on owners of its clubs will be, at best, deeply suspicious about whether this process is going to lead anywhere at all. It is also worth noting that Blatter’s speech was also nothing more than that – a speech. FIFA’s 209 member associations still need to approve all of this.

In truth, much of what Blatter announced today is neither new nor radically different from what has been discussed before. Indeed, much of the substance of these ideas has been rejected by various FIFA congresses and meetings. What we probably are seeing is evidence that changing the culture of an organisation takes time, effort and no small degree of soul-searching. FIFA is not there yet. Indeed, if this is evidence of FIFA’s progress thus far, then we are still a long way from getting anywhere near where we really need to be.

Dan Hough

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