FIFA Scandal is No Surprise if You’ve Been Paying Attention
Votes swinging based on bribes, secret deals made in backrooms, corruption at the highest levels. No, this is not about the next presidential election–not yet anyway. Instead this is how the last few World Cups have allegedly been awarded. To many jaded sports fans familiar with the International Olympic Committee or NCAA, this is not surprising. Even for the naïve, allegations of corruption in FIFA are not startling. What was unexpected though was that the powerful people at FIFA would actually be caught. With the recent arrests, the narrative of the story has shifted from if the tree is rotten to how far up that rot goes. Read on to learn about the scandal rocking FIFA and what it means for the future of the World Cup and its decisionmakers.
To understand the FIFA scandal, it is first necessary to understand the organization itself, and its former leader, Sepp Blatter.
What is FIFA?
FIFA–the Federation Internationale de Football Association–was founded in May 1904 by the international football associations of seven countries. The organization continued to grow, but remained entirely European until 1909 when South Africa joined and the United States followed in 1912. FIFA went through hard times during WWI and nearly fell apart altogether, however it endured and began expanding anew.
In 1930, FIFA staged its first World Cup, an event it had been building up to ever since soccer was first played at the Olympics in 1908. In the ensuing years, the organization and its membership grew while also dealing with issues such as travel causing many of best teams to not participate in the first few World Cups. By the 1970s FIFA had really emerged on the world stage incorporating members from Europe and South America in growing numbers as well as many new members from former colonial holdings. Under the much-maligned supervision of Sepp Blatter, FIFA has grown into a powerful global entity with 209 members worldwide, divided into six regional confederations, and with unquestioned clout.
Who is Sepp Blatter?
Sepp Blatter first became part of FIFA in 1975, after leaving his job at a Swiss watchmaker. He spent the next 40 years serving in a variety of roles since his start, namely as secretary general for 17 years and then president of the organization since 1998. Under his leadership FIFA’s crowning tournament has been played on two new continents, Asia and Africa, and become a multi-billion dollar tournament.
Despite his role in dramatically growing the game’s presence worldwide, Blatter is known as much for controversy. In the past he has made numerous inappropriate comments and been repeatedly accused of corruption in the court of public opinion. The awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 contest to Qatar seemed to be the ultimate examples of his duplicitousness.
Still, even with this reputation and after the recent arrests of senior FIFA members, Blatter was able to avoid indictment and was actually elected to a fifth term as FIFA president. However, following persistent criticism of himself and FIFA as a whole, Blatter finally relented and resigned his post in 2015. Nonetheless, Blatter will remain in his position until a new election takes place either later this year or early next, meaning the reign of Sepp Blatter at FIFA is not over just yet.
A History of Bribery, Corruption, and Kickbacks
While allegations of corruption and bribery have long haunted Blatter and by extension FIFA, this has had little or no effect on the all-important bottom line. In the last four years alone, FIFA has generated $6 billion in revenue; however, how the money is used has come under greater question. While this money was earmarked for soccer development worldwide, it was instead used for FIFA’s leaders’ own ambitions.
Acting on all the rumor and speculation concerning FIFA’s backroom dealings, the U.S. Justice Department indicted nine of the organization’s leaders for bribery amounting to $150 million. The arrests were part of a larger joint raid made along with Swiss authorities that also saw five corporate executives arrested and charged with racketeering, conspiracy, and corruption. The British are also considering filing their own charges. The video below explains the FIFA scandal and arrests in detail.
Picking a World Cup
The World Cup is easily the most popular sporting event across the world. In 2010 for example, 200 million people tuned in for the draw or group selection process, not even an actual game. For comparison’s sake, the amount of people who watched the Super Bowl in 2015, a record for the event, maxed out at approximately 121 million people.
How the Process Works
Until 2002, every World Cup was played in either Europe, North America, or South America. However, this finally changed when Japan and Korea co-hosted the event. This also led to a major change in how the hosting country is selected. In 2006, FIFA instituted a system in which the tournament would be rotated among its six regional confederations.
While this was scrapped in 2007, a similar rule was put into place that same year stating that all countries in a particular regional confederation would be ineligible to host two World Cups following the event hosted by a neighboring country. In other words, if the U.S. hosted the 2018 World Cup, other countries in its region, such as Mexico, would not be eligible to host a World Cup until 2030 at the earliest.
The voting process itself is the responsibility of the executive committee, which is made up of 24 people. These include the president and vice president of FIFA, as well as seven other vice presidents representing each continental soccer federation and one from one of the home nations of the United Kingdom. To clarify, there are actually only six continental confederations–Antarctica is left out in the cold, thus the need for the seventh member. Lastly are 15 members elected from the 209 member countries, who are appointed to four-year terms.
These members are in charge of who gets the right to host the World Cup. The voting process involves each country interested in hosting the event giving a presentation on television before the committee. Once all the prospective hosts have presented their cases, the executive committee votes by secret ballot until a winner is declared. In the case of a tie, it is up to the president of FIFA to cast the deciding vote.
Corruption at Every Turn
As can be expected from a process of this nature, corruption is rampant. Of the many accusations, members selling votes is most common. In the most recent World Cup bid process, actual evidence of this phenomenon emerged. Two undercover British journalists were approached and offered votes in exchange for bribes. The notion of corruption however, should not be a surprise, in fact the way FIFA is constructed basically lends itself to this.
While not every country votes on who will host the World Cup, each has a say in another important way. Every member votes for the organization’s president. This is a system that can encourage small countries that are more dependent on FIFA stipends to be more likely to sell their vote in exchange for more support. This is the case because the amount of support each country receives has nothing to do with its size. Thus, for example, a massive country like China can receive less money from FIFA than a small country such as Bermuda.
In addition, aside from money, small countries can also expect other benefits for supporting certain people or countries’ bids. This comes in the form of recognition, namely FIFA along with having a poorly defined system for allocating funds also has an unclear definition of what makes a nation. For example Gibraltar, a small rock governed by the U.K. but claimed by Spain, nearly won recognition as its own nation despite only having a population of 29,000 people. The following video highlights the most recent FIFA presidential election.
Trouble With the Machine
The controversial decisions to award Russia the World Cup in 2018 and Qatar the event in 2022 are hardly the first incidents with picking a host country. In 2002 when Japan and South Korea co-hosted the event there were minor issues with the travel required between the venues causing the organizers to never again hold a multi-country event.
The controversy only ratcheted up for the next World Cup in 2006, when allegations concerning bribery surfaced when Germany won an upset bid for the tournament over supposedly favored South Africa. Recently, details have emerged of specifically what this bribery entailed; in this case it far exceeded the norm. In 2006 Germany is alleged to have temporarily lifted an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia and to have shipped the country weapons in exchange for its vote. It is also accused of using the lure of investment from German companies such as Volkswagen, to get Thailand and South Korea to also support its candidacy.
Controversy continued when the tournament moved to Africa. In 2010 South Africa finally succeeded in its bid for the World Cup. According to a recent report, Morocco actually received more votes but, through a series of bribes, South Africa was declared the winner. At the center of this scandal was former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner, who reportedly took bribes from both countries for the votes he controlled, he may also have taken money from Egypt who was also bidding for the tournament that year.
Like a perpetual storm cloud, problems followed the World Cup when it arrived in soccer mecca Brazil. The issues evolved far beyond just bribery and affected society as whole. Just a few of the major problems included the forced eviction of thousands of poor residents, social unrest, police brutality, unfinished infrastructure projects, unused stadiums, worker deaths, and lasting social inequality that was actually exacerbated by the tournament.
Russia and Qatar
ll these issues bring us back around to the next two proposed hosts for the World Cup: Russia and Qatar. Russia was awarded the tournament despite continued human rights abuses as well as its flagrant invasions of Ukraine and Georgia. Additionally, like Brazil before it, while Russia agrees to host the lavish tournament, people at home will be feeling the cost. Russia plans to spend at least $20 billion–a new record–despite the Ruble losing half its value in the last year and U.S.-led sanctions taking their toll on the Russian economy, as well.
Then there is Qatar, whose selection to hold the 2022 tournament was so preposterous that it played a huge role in authorities finally stepping in to clean up FIFA’s corruption. Qatar plans to spend $220 billion on the tournament, which will make that record-breaking Russian figure look minuscule. Also, in an effort to avoid the average 106 degree temperature there, the World Cup in Qatar will be moved to winter. On a human level, most of the work is being done by migrants who are working in slave-like conditions and dying in droves. This does not even take into account the laws against things such as drinking alcohol or homosexuality. The following video explains many of the negative issues as a result of the World Cup in Qatar.
With this as the backdrop and with the still-simmering scandal, it comes as little surprise then that bidding for the 2026 tournament has been put on hold. Additionally, despite FIFA saying there is no legal ground on which to take hosting duties for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups away from Russia and Qatar, many are eager to explore that option as well.
The FIFA scandal far exceeds the traditional borders of sport. The organization is so powerful that it has the ability, directly or indirectly, to boost an unpopular leader and even legitimize states. It also has sponsorships from some the world’s most powerful corporations and is the most popular sport globally. With this in mind then, the recent arrests of FIFA’s top leaders were surprising only in the fact that they actually happened. These men and this organization have been basically untouchable for decades.
Thus, while the U.S. and Swiss indict leaders and promise further action, it is hard to believe any of it will actually happen, or at the very least stick. Even the resignation of Sepp Blatter, despite the ardent support of Vladimir Putin, comes with a caveat. Blatter was elected in a landslide right before his resignation and was allowed to leave on his own terms instead of in hand cuffs, as many feel should be the case.
While its leaders fall like dominoes, FIFA will likely survive this scandal as it survived two world wars, membership issues, and a host of other problems along the way. The real question in the wake of this scandal is, will any of these arrests, indictments, or resignations make this seminal organization less corrupt and more honest? Based on the system in place and its recent elections the answer looks like no.