The FIFA Scandals and Lessons for Accountability

June 22nd, 2011

Uruguay v France: Group A - 2010 FIFA World Cup |, Flickr*

Here’s an interesting thought experiment. What would happen if you took an organization, gave it huge resources and publicity, required no transparency, and then asked it to self-regulate? A lot of corporations and governments would like to argue you’d get efficiency. As it would turn out… you’d get FIFA.

In May of this year, the International Federation of Association Football (In French: Fédération Internationale de Football Association or FIFA), suspended two of its officials: Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar and Jack Warner of Trinidad and Tobago. These men were accused of attempting to bribe the 25 heads of the Caribbean football associations who were voting in an upcoming FIFA presidential election. Allegedly, Warner offered them cash gifts of $40,000 each in exchange for their votes for Bin Hammam, who was running against incumbent Sepp Blatter. The ethics panel responsible for suspending Bin Hammam and Warner found no wrongdoing on the part of Blatter, who went on to run for president unopposed. Warner adamantly denied the allegations against him.

Of course, that wasn’t the end of it. There is also the small matter of the 25 officials who either did or didn’t take the cash. So at the beginning of June, FIFA summoned them to a hearing in Miami where they would be questioned on their involvement. To assist the ethics committee, FIFA hired Freeh Group International Europe, an agency run by Louis Freeh, a former FBI director. The summoning letter, rather comically, read:

Although you are under no obligation to attend such a meeting please be advised that the FIFA ethics committee may draw a negative inference in the event that you…do not attend the meeting. Furthermore we kindly remind you that as an official you have a duty of disclosure and reporting, including providing any evidence requested for inspection.

But FIFA exists in the zero-accountability world, so 18 of those 25 officials asked to attend the hearing told FIFA that they wouldn’t be there, thank you very much. Really, you can’t expect much more given FIFA’s culture and accountability structure.

It was around this time that Blatter, the reelected president of FIFA, gave an astonishing press conference that revealed just how out of touch he is with the concept of responsibility. Goal, The New York Times soccer blog, summed it up the best:

There are press conferences and there are press conferences. Those that take place in the real world generally take the form of question-and-answer sessions, and if the subject in the glare of the cameras has the necessary media skills then he or she will often enter into some light banter with the gathered scribes… However the press conferences in Sepp Blatter’s world are totally different affairs. There, all the gardens are rosy. There’s no crises, no catastrophes, no imbroglio. In Sepp World there is not even a mild pickle. All there seems to be are hoards of nasty journalists trying to make trouble. On Monday in Zurich, in the full glare of the world’s gathered media, Blatter, the FIFA president, confirmed what most in his executive committee knew all along: that there’s no problem whatsoever. Nothing to see here. Next.

But clearly there is a problem. Acutally not just one.

So back in the real world Warner tendered his resignation in the face of a “pretty damming” preliminary investigation by FIFA’s ethics committee. And then FIFA decided Warner’s resignation was an indication that the problem was solved. So it closed the ethics inquiry, announcing the “presumption of innocence was maintained.” As Damian Collins, who has been investigating FIFA corruption, put it: “This shows that FIFA can’t be trusted to run their own investigation…they have totally failed. This means we will never know the truth about what happened.”

Obviously FIFA doesn’t get it. A case of corruption isn’t important because one individual perpetrates it in an isolated incident. It is important because it reveals a systematic shortcoming which must be mended, lest it occur habitually. Cutting the ethics committee short as a result of Warner’s resignation misses the point—and opens the door for this sort of misconduct in the future. Taking light away from the problem now only diverts attention, it doesn’t solve anything.

Yes, FIFA will survive the ethics scandal. There are only three groups that can truly hold FIFA accountable—member associations, fans, and corporate sponsors. Each is unlikely, for very different reasons, to cut off the flow of money and support that make FIFA so influential. But please don’t be surprised when this isn’t the last FIFA scandal. Without transparency or accountability, corruption is never far away.

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Written by Ann Hollingshead

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