Will a few legal red cards affect the way FIFA plays?

May 28, 2015
FIFA President Blatter arrives for opening ceremony of 65th FIFA Congress in Zurich

FIFA President Sepp Blatter arrives for the opening ceremony of the 65th FIFA Congress in Zurich, Switzerland, May 28, 2015. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Will the great and powerful international soccer federation — FIFA — be brought down by the U.S. Justice Department?

The 161-page indictment filed against 14 individuals connected to FIFA makes depressing reading. It’s page after page of what the Justice Department says are corrupt transactions, usually involving the sale of marketing or broadcast rights relating to the world’s favorite sporting event, the World Cup, smaller international competitions and national soccer teams.

The cases so far only revolve around deals in North and South America.

According to the indictment, the typical scheme went like this: a senior soccer official from one of the Western Hemisphere federations would sell the distribution rights to a marketing company, which would then sell those rights to a TV channel or sporting goods company. As part of this deal, the indictment claims, the marketing company in the middle would facilitate payments to the federation executive. Simple, really. By selling through a (corrupt) intermediary, the soccer executives could skim some of the money.

If the charges stand, then the individuals involved could face lengthy jail time and personal ruin. The more important question is whether the investigation will lead to the reform of the whole of FIFA.

The problem is that the way sports federations are organized invites the kind of behavior alleged here. In many countries, federation leaders have limited accountability to their members, since the leaders are appointed — not elected. So, while catching a few of the guilty might act as a deterrent, it is unlikely to deal with the fundamental problem. Widespread reform can be elusive, in the same way that arresting a few drug dealers — no doubt desirable in its own right — does little to stop the drug trade.

One obvious solution to the corrupt behavior alleged by the Justice Department would be to force sports federations to publish details of all the contracts they sign, with all the numbers, so anyone can see what was paid. It’s hard to think of any business in the world that provides that level of transparency, and indeed it’s likely that many legitimate buyers of soccer rights would resist seeing the terms of their contracts made public. These contracts might contain clauses about possible events that the buyers of broadcast rights would prefer to keep private, for example. (If a country like Russia were stripped of the World Cup, for example, would the buyers of broadcast rights be let out of their deals?)

Some will argue that the process of reforming an organization like FIFA is not so much about the rules as about rooting out the corrupt individuals. There are many reasons to be skeptical about the potential to get “the right kind of people” in charge. The leaders of major sports organizations are ambitious politicians who need money to maintain their standing. The current controversies about campaign finance in U.S. elections suggest that it is impossible to keep money out of politics, and that way danger lies.

Perhaps most worryingly for FIFA and the future of the World Cup, it’s not even clear that people around the world agree on the meaning of corruption. This is a culturally sensitive issue. Kickbacks and bribery are a normal part of doing business in many countries, as documented by watchdog Transparency International. But even within the United States, , in many cases it is the norm to pay individuals a gratuity for making things happen. When you tip a waiter or doorman you don’t expect the sum to be public or the transaction to be considered a bribe, even if you follow your tip with “Now please find me the best table.”

In northwest Europe and the United States, we have now drawn a sharp distinction between this legal activity and the illegal activity of giving gratuities to public officials or individuals involved in arms-length transactions. Not everyone in the world thinks like this. No doubt there are executives inside FIFA who, until now, have thought of themselves as “clean,” but must be wondering if any of their actions might be actually be legal. After all, the Justice Department says, “this indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation.”

Building a coalition on a global scale — and that’s what the World Cup and FIFA really is — requires immense compromises, and often a willingness not to look too deeply into what is going on. Most people might applaud the Justice Department’s assault on the worst excesses of FIFA. But if this investigation goes much deeper, resistance from the members of the FIFA congress might stiffen. The warring parties might break up into regional blocs, and the World Cup itself might be the victim. If that is the price of justice, some might say, then it is a price worth paying.

One comment

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They finally got him. What are the odds that one of the indicted rolled. But this won’t fix things. A lot of countries were happy with the corruption.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive