Western and emerging nations battle for the future of FIFA
The battle for the future of FIFA, soccer’s world body, pits Western countries eager to retain control against emerging nations seeking a larger piece of the pie with the oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar in the hot seat.
A first round in the battle will be decided at the end of this month when FIFA holds its world congress to elect a new president. Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is challenging Swiss-born Sepp Blatter, the imperious incumbent who is running for a fourth term.
Mr. Bin Hammam is campaigning on a platform that goes to the more fundamental crisis confronting FIFA and that, like the presidential election, has Western and emerging nations lining up on opposite sides.
Mr. Bin Hammam argues that FIFA needs new leadership because Mr. Blatter’s legacy is one of lack of transparency and democratic organization that is pockmarked by corruption scandals.
FIFA’s latest scandal involves a third of its 24-member executive committee being accused of improper behavior and corruption in the awarding last December of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar. The executive committee members suspected of wrongdoing all hail from emerging nations while Qatar, the first Middle Eastern nation to host the world’s largest sporting event, is accused of having bribed at least two of them to secure their votes.
Mr. Bin Hammam, the Qatari bid committee and the FIFA executive committee have all denied the allegations.
The battle for the future of FIFA is one that not only reflects the growing global influence of emerging nations, even if players like China and India have yet to make their mark in the world of soccer, but also a greater emphasis on stricter regulation in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Unlike the International Olympic Committee that faced a similar crisis at the beginning of the new century or the financial sector that has been the focus of increased post 2008 regulation, FIFA seems despite the spiralling
corruption scandal well positioned to slip through the net.
The increasing influence in FIFA of non-European nations is increasingly evident. If the majority of World Cups in the 20th century were hosted by European nations, emerging nations have dominated since 2002 with South Korea (together with Japan) and South Africa hosting the last two tournaments and Brazil, Russia and Qatar slated for the next three. European nations have been reduced to a quarter of FIFA’s executive committee seats in addition to the one held by the United States.
The corruption scandal has been simmering since last fall when FIFA was forced to ban two of its executive committees after they were caught on tape by The Sunday Times soliciting bribes for their votes in the December 2, 2011 FIFA executive board meeting that awarded the tournaments to Russia and Qatar.
Mr. Blatter kept the scandal simmering by admitting in February that Spain and Portugal, who were jointly bidding for the 2018 Cup, had struck an illegal agreement with Qatar to swap votes for their respective bids.
His admission amounted to a declaration that an earlier FIFA investigation that concluded that there was no substance to allegations of vote swapping was a farce.
Adding insult to injury, Mr. Blatter downplayed the agreement saying it was not important because it had not produced results.
Explosive testimony earlier this month in a British parliamentary enquiry into soccer governance ensured that the scandal could no longer be buried. Former English FA and England 2018 World Cup bid chairman David Triesman testified that four FIFA executive committee members—Jack Warner, Worawi Makudi, Nicolas Leoz and Ricardo Teixeira—had demanded improper inducements in return for their votes for England’s failed 2018 World Cup bid.
The Sunday Times asserted in a letter to the enquiry chairman that Qatar had bought the votes of Confederation of African Football president Issa Hayatou and fellow FIFA executive committee member Jacques Anouma for $1.5 million each.
Underlying the corruption scandal are fundamentally different views of the electoral process. To Western nations, the awarding of the Cup is the equivalent of an election in which bidders’ campaign in the expectation that the party with the strongest argument and best campaign will emerge victorious. To nations like Qatar and many FIFA executive committee members the contest is one of “I scratch your back, you scratch mine.”
Qatar’s successful bid suggests that its strategy worked. Qatar won despite a FIFA evaluation report that described the Gulf state’s blistering summer temperature as “a potential health risk for players, officials, the FIFA family and spectators.”
Qatar has said its stadiums would be cooled with innovative new technology to which dissident US FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer responded that one could air-condition an entire country.
Investigations into the corruption allegations aired in the British parliament enquiry are certain to put Qatar’s bid campaign under the microscope. They follow similar allegations by Mr. Blazer and German sports journalist Thomas Kistner.
Mr. Blazer charged in an interview in February with World Soccer Magazine that the executive committee prior to the awarding of the Cup to Qatar had been unwilling to discuss the FIFA evaluation report.
“That part of the Exco meeting was over in a matter of minutes,” Mr. Blazer said.
Mr. Blazer criticized FIFA executive committee members for being influenced by ambiguous promises of what he termed “legacy,” such as assistance in building new training facilities in their home countries.
“All of a sudden it was presumed that kind of legacy was OK,” Mr. Blazer said. “It wasn’t, it shouldn’t have been, but a couple of guys went far beyond what they should have. It became confusing. It was badly done on our part.”
Mr. Kistner asserts that Qatar paid the football federations of Argentina and Brazil, whose presidents are FIFA executive committee members, $1 million each to have their national teams play one another in the Qatari capital Doha two weeks before the December vote on the hosting of the 2022 World Cup.
He asserts further that a Qatar bid adviser recommended a $78.4 million payment to Argentina to influence the vote of the Argentinean football federation chief Julio Grondona, who serves as FIFA vice president and head of the organization’s finance commission.
All in all, Mr. Kistner says that Qatar has promised as part of its bid to build 22 stadiums in developing nations as well as a soccer academy in Thailand.
The assertions made in the British parliament enquiry, if true, constitute clear violations of FIFA rules and regulations. Mr. Blazer and Mr. Kistner’s assertions raise questions as much about the integrity of Qatar’s bid as they do about FIFA’s bidding process.
The electoral battle between Mr. Blatter and Mr. Bin Hammam centers on the need for reform of FIFA. It is a battle that goes to the core of the power struggle between Western and emerging soccer nations.
The problem is that this month’s election of a new FIFA president is unlikely to produce much change.
Mr. Blatter has allowed FIFA’s problems to fester and there is no reason to believe that he will have a change of heart should he again be mandated to lead world soccer.
Mr. Bin Hammam, despite his calls for greater transparency, has given no indication that he disagrees with the way Qatar waged its successful campaign.
Investigation of the corruption charges may force punitive measures against FIFA executive committee members. But with no real external pressure on FIFA to change its ways, real reform is likely to be left by the roadside.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])