The Politics of False Dawns at FIFA

In 2013, FIFA president Sepp Blatter triumphantly proclaimed the success of FIFA’s internal reform process. Presiding over the football governing body’s annual conference in Mauritius, Blatter claimed that FIFA had “weathered the storm” of recent corruption scandals and could move forward optimistically following the implementation of a reform package designed to promote good governance. Fast-forward two years, however, and it becomes apparent that FIFA remains embroiled in a storm that seems to be gaining in momentum each day as new allegations of corruption are brought forth and more transgressions are brought to light.

Events this year have shaken FIFA to its core. The indictment of fourteen FIFA and sports marketing officials on corruption charges by the U.S. Department of Justice in May (see here) was a sensational event that set the stage for further tumultuousness in the upper echelons of the organization. Indeed, Blatter (who plans to resign in February 2016) and UEFA president Michel Platini (previously the odds-on favorite to succeed Blatter) are currently suspended by FIFA after Swiss authorities opened a criminal investigation against Blatter over an alleged “disloyal payment” to Platini in 2011. While investigators have not yet determined whether this particular act was in fact “corrupt,” the investigation nonetheless shows that FIFA is a problem-ridden organization suffering from a fundamental leadership crisis.

Today, Blatter’s optimistic comments of 2013 are a distant memory and appear to be an utter sham. But how did this come about? What happened to the highly-touted reform package that was supposedly ushering in a new era of good governance? In reality, a truly meaningful and sweeping reform process never actually occurred. Instead, the past few years have been characterized by a series of false dawns in which promising developments have petered out, preserving the status quo and seriously hindering anti-corruption efforts in FIFA.

False Dawn #1: The Independent Governance Committee

Following the controversy associated with the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding processes (see here for a timeline), FIFA charged Mark Pieth, a Swiss law professor and anti-corruption expert, with the task of heading an independent advisory body designed to formulate reform proposals. This Independent Governance Committee (IGC), established in 2011, represented a step in the right direction. Finally, it seemed, FIFA could begin to adopt much-needed institutional reforms promoting higher transparency and accountability. Blatter and other top FIFA officials effectively ensured that this would not happen

Despite their public enthusiasm for reform, FIFA executives never really took the IGC’s reform proposals seriously. Sure, important reforms were passed, chief among them integrity checks in executive elections and the introduction of independent chairpersons to oversee FIFA’s Ethics and Audit & Compliance committees. However, as the IGC noted in its final report in 2014, some of the most crucial reforms—term limits for the presidency and other executives, independent oversight of the executive committee, salary disclosures, etc.—remain unimplemented. Any organization truly committed to governance reform would have adopted these common-sense measures. Mark Pieth slammed Blatter for “cherry picking” the easiest reform measures and avoiding the tougher measures that would induce real change. Blatter dismissed this criticism, arguing that “[e]ven if Professor Pieth says we shall cherry pick, we cannot take the whole tree.” Such dismissiveness illustrates a deeply-entrenched resistance to change that continues to plague FIFA today.

False Dawn #2: The Garcia Report

In addition to ignoring crucial IGC reform proposals, internal actors have also undermined some reforms following their enactment. The end-result: “newly-reformed” institutions that appear promising but deliver little. The events surrounding the 2014 Garcia Report provide an excellent example of this issue.

Michael Garcia, an American lawyer, served as the independent chairman of the investigatory chamber of FIFA’s Ethics Committee. Garcia oversaw an extensive two-year investigation into the allegedly corrupt bidding processes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. He presented his findings to FIFA in a 430-page report, which FIFA then released in summary form. Garcia complained that this 42-page summary was “materially incomplete and erroneous,” leading him to challenge the release of this summary in front of FIFA’s Appeals Committee. His criticisms fell on deaf ears, and he resigned soon after.

FIFA’s refusal to release the Garcia Report (or even an accurate summary of it) shows how FIFA has obstructed the very institutions that purportedly demonstrate its commitment to reform and transparency. On paper, the adoption of independent oversight on the Ethics Committee looked like a clear shift towards greater transparency and accountability. In practice, however, Garcia’s work was hamstrung by officials lacking a true commitment to transparency and reform. This case demonstrates that reformed institutions do not stand a chance of functioning properly without genuine buy-in from the individuals who work in and oversee these institutions.

False Dawn #3: Blatter’s Reelection and Resignation

Joint efforts by U.S. and Swiss authorities to crack down on misconduct within FIFA stirred up significant controversy ahead of the presidential election in May 2015. These high-profile legal sanctions showcased the pervasiveness of FIFA’s corruption problem as well as the inadequacy of its reform efforts (note: for an excellent paper that evaluates the effectiveness of legal and other accountability mechanisms in the FIFA case, see Pielke [2013]). These developments should have rendered Blatter’s presidency untenable, but they did not. Instead, when presented with the opportunity to take a stand for reform and change, the FIFA Congress voted for more of the same—Blatter won 133-73 over his nearest challenger. Blatter’s reelection in spite of all the wrongdoing that took place on his watch demonstrates the magnitude and systemic nature of FIFA’s governance dilemma.

A mere four days after winning reelection, widespread public backlash ultimately compelled Blatter to resign from the presidency as of February 2016. Unfortunately, this seemingly good news did not really change much. Blatter’s delayed resignation allowed him to cling on to his position and in so doing stymie any hope for meaningful reform. Given his recent suspension, though, Blatter may finally be forced out for good. Now, all eyes have turned to the special presidential election scheduled for next winter, which will play a decisive role in shaping FIFA’s future. 

The 2016 FIFA Presidential Election: False Dawn #4?

The three false dawns described above show that important institutional reforms are still lacking and, most importantly, that the troubles facing FIFA are cultural in nature. Indeed, FIFA officials’ decisions to ignore important IGC recommendations, to misleadingly censor and obstruct the Garcia Report, and to reelect Sepp Blatter in 2015 all boil down to an organizational culture that has normalized corruption and allowed it to flourish. This organizational culture must undergo fundamental change before essential reforms can hope to succeed. Next February’s presidential election could play a pivotal role in this process.

In order for FIFA to seriously commit to reform, a significant change in leadership is paramount. Certainly, external forces such as social condemnation and legal sanctions have played a necessary role in weeding out “bad apples” within FIFA’s leadership, but their impact is limited and insufficient in the long-run because these forces fail to address the underlying cultural elements that drive systemic corruption. A change in organizational culture must be internally-driven, and the key driver of this process must be the next FIFA president. This president should be a moral entrepreneur of sorts, who actively “walks the talk” of reform and legitimizes and prioritizes anti-corruption efforts inside the organization. While it is difficult to say whether any of the current presidential candidates can fulfill this role (an outsider may be a surer bet but might lack electability), one thing is certain: the extent to which the next president truly prioritizes reform and fosters internal cultural change will determine whether we look back on the 2016 election as a watershed moment in FIFA’s history or just another false dawn.

William Heaston

University of Sussex

W.R.Heaston@sussex.ac.uk

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