The Long Ball Tactic

FIFA and democracy

Posted in Uncategorized by mike on May 31, 2011

If you were to give Sepp Blatter credit for anything, it would probably be his unerring ability to ride out pretty much any scandal that comes his way. In response to the most recent FIFA bribery allegations he gave a press conference yesterday where he refused to even acknowledge the farce that football’s governing body has descended into.

The closest we got to a recognition of the storm which had been gathering all weekend in FIFA’s executive committee was his concession that, yes, there had been “difficulties” but, no, despite the suspensions of Mohammed bin Hammam and Jack Warner, and corruption allegations being levelled from high ranking members of FIFA, this was not a crisis.

It was, in many ways, an astounding exercise in brassnecked denial.

On the BBC’s Newsnight programme on Friday, Tony Blair’s former head of communications Alastair Campbell – a man who knows a thing or two about manoeuvring out of a crisis – predicted that if Blatter could see out the next few days then he would sail through Wednesday’s elections and win four more years as FIFA president. Sure enough, the ex-spin doctor looks to be right. Amazingly, Blatter enters Wednesday’s elections in better shape than he was four days ago, his only rival for presidency has withdrawn and, barring any more allegations, a Blatter election victory is a mere formality.

The very fact that Blatter can get away with this, with only an internal “ethics committee” deciding whether or not he has a case to answer, shows up a very serious failure in FIFA as an organisation, and it is, needless to say, something which must be addressed if we are to bring about reform.

The very first way we should be looking to reform FIFA is to bring about a change that is so fundamental it almost goes without saying – FIFA must be a democracy.

The British Labour Party politician Tony Benn said that in a democracy we should ask the powerful five questions:

1. What power have you got?

2. Where did you get it from?

3. In whose interests do you exercise it?

4. To whom are you accountable?

5. How can we get rid of you?

“Only democracy gives us that right” Benn stated, “that is why no-one with power likes democracy”. The latter part of that statement seems particularly pertinent when looking at FIFA.

We, as football fans, cannot ask those questions of Blatter, nor can we elect anyone to ask them on our behalf. Geoff Thompson, the only British person who holds a high-ranking position in the organisation, seems too ingrained in his role as FIFA vice-president to question Blatter’s ethics. Thompson was part of the World Cup 2018 bid team that had the temerity to label the BBC “an embarrassment” when they ran a programme presented by the journalist and author Andrew Jennings outlining FIFA corruption allegations. Thompson then personally signed a letter to the FIFA executive committee from the bid team, distancing themselves from the BBC and saying “as a member of the football family we naturally feel solidarity with you and your colleagues”.

If we could ask those questions of FIFA, however, then what would the answers be? We probably know the answers to questions 1 and 2 well enough but question 3 is a little more tricky. In whose interest does Blatter and the rest of FIFA exercise their power? Is it in the interests of the fans, or is Blatter merely a manager of football capitalism?

To try and answer this I want to look at an example. At the last World Cup, some fans accused of “guerilla marketing” (ie. attending games wearing logos of companies who weren’t official sponsors of the tournament) were marched off to sinister sounding Kafkaesque “FIFA courts” – an entirely undemocratic institution which seemed to have higher authority than the host country’s own law courts.

This may seem bizarre but, when viewed in the context of FIFA’s globalised marketing scheme, it starts to look like less of an anomaly. Whilst awarding the World Cup to countries such as South Africa and Brazil is seen as an act of benevolence on FIFA’s part to let different nations get a taste of the World Cup action, it could also be seen as an economic expansionist policy ensuring those at the top make a tidy profit. To host a World Cup, a country has to first agree to relax its tax laws for  FIFA and its associated parties, meaning that anyone who pays enough money to FIFA can get in on this deregulated free-for-all. No wonder the “guerilla marketers” who dare to try and intrude on this commercial hegemony face such tough retribution.

Whilst you may argue the rights and wrongs of this free market approach to football’s commercial side, if Blatter was fully accountable he would have to work harder to prove to football fans that this represnted FIFA working in their interests, and not merely the interests of a rich minority who own shares in corporations.

Moving on to questions 4 and 5: “to whom are you accountable?” and “how do we get rid of you?” The answers seem, sadly, all too predictable: “no one” and “you can’t” would probably be the most honest response.

Accountability, then, should be next on the agenda for FIFA reform, and with this would come a way of getting rid of those in power. At the moment FIFA seems to be able to act in any way it want. One of the advantages of being based in Switzerland, as well as the generous tax breaks, is that they do not have to abide by the country’s anti-corruption legislation. They are, in effect, not even accountable to the law.

It is a sad state of affairs that, in the absence of any proper mechanisms to hold FIFA to account, we now have to ask FIFA’s sponsors – themselves multi-national corporations who have profited from Blatter’s reign as president – to have an unlikely attack of conscience and withdraw their association with football’s governing body, as Sports Illustrated journalist and FIFA reformist Grant Wahl has urged people to do on Twitter. As we have already seen, FIFA have proved themselves adept at negotiating tax breaks for their affiliates – in Brazil, FIFA and their partners are, incredibly, exempt from tax on any World Cup goods and services for a full five years from January this year – which presents companies with little incentive to give up these deregulated perks purely in the name of making a moral stand.

Having said all this, it’s certainly reassuring that people are beginning to see the need for reform and are starting to demand it. On the day of Blatter’s press conference, one of the top trending topics around the world on Twitter was the hashtag #blatterout. But we, as mere fans, are unable to make that happen, our voice is not heard by FIFA, and the depressing fact is that even if Blatter did go we would still not necessarily be any closer to a more democratic governing body. It is, ultimately, the structures and mechanisms of power that need to be replaced, not just the president. With a system like the current one it is no wonder that football’s corridors of power seem so rife with corruption.

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One Response

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  1. Panama said, on May 10, 2012 at 12:50 am

    Making a visit to the Home of FIFA in Zurich on Tuesday, Brazil ’s Minister of Sport Aldo Rebelo enjoyed a productive meeting with executives from world football’s governing body and the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil ™ Organising Committee (LOC).


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