Why FIFA cannot (and will not) tackle corruption

I was recently interviewed for a Polish newspaper as part of a feature on FIFA ahead of the 1 June elections. The Q&A is below, but as part of the preamble it’s important to point two things:

One, journalists and bloggers have very limited attention-spans, and seem incapable of stepping back looking at events in an historical context. What’s happening at FIFA isn’t something new, it’s the outcome of the last 40-50 years, and more specifically in Sepp Blatter’s case, the outcome of his actions over the last two decades or so.

Secondly, we find it very easy to criticise the people in power but equally easy to shut up and write ‘positively’ when we’re asked to by these same people. That is what power buys you – instant respect, even from your detractors. That, and an desperate desire to change that has blinded people to what is actually required to fix football, means that fans will champion the likes of Hammam until they are in power, and then when that doesn’t work (because it won’t), they will start supporting the opposition.

Maybe it’s time to think (and act) long-term instead of just thinking about today?

Here’s the Q&A:

Do you believe Mr Bin Hammam stand any chances against Mr Blatter?

No. FIFA elections aren’t a public vote. You can’t stand for election unless nominated by an FA, and that in itself places enormous political obstacles in your path. Then, the member nations have one vote each, and since their responsibility in the health of football in their own country (in other words, how much money FIFA can give them to run their national FAs), they tend to vote for the candidate who is most likely to benefit them financially.

That is why you saw Hammam pledge to double to grants given to each country as part of his campaign promise, and why you saw Blatter talk about substantially increasing development aid in the next four years.

At the end of the day though, it’s about political favours. Blatter backed Platini as UEFA chief in exchange for his backing for FIFA elections, and that in itself translates into UEFA many member nations voting for Blatter). It’s the same case with CONCACAF (Warner is an old partner-in-crime / buddy of Blatter), CONMEBOL (ditto for Nicolas Leoz and Ricardo Teixeira) and Oceania. Blatter took the World Cup to Africa in 2010, so that’s bought him the African vote, which pretty much leaves Hammam with Asia.

National FAs are not concerned with progress or corruption. They’re concerned with their own finances, and maintaining the status quo so that there are no disturbances in their operations. When in doubt, better the devil you know, and Blatter is the devil they know all too well.

If Bin Hammam wins, will he be able to tackle corruption in FIFA?

What makes you think he wants to? This is a man who strong-armed his way to the AFC presidency, the man who was actively supporting the Qatar bid which is under serious allegations of vote buying. He’s talked about transparency – i.e. pandered to the public, but hasn’t effectively done anything to promote transparency (a good start would have been to reveal his own income from FIFA).

And if Bin Hammam genuinely wants to tackle corruption, that won’t endear him to the voters in this election. Do you expect corrupt FAs to vote for Hammam if he’s going in after them?

Corruption in FIFA, like in any other political setup, can be dealt only through a complete restructuring, long-term attention to re-building football from the grassroots and an iron-willed leader at the top (i.e. the same way countries survive independence / revolution). It will take time, and it will result in a lot of people losing a lot of money.

Do you believe Mr Blatter – if he wins – will be able to change the face of his organisation?

If you’re asking if he can improve the organisation’s image, then yes, there are quite a few things he can do for this. But change it for whom? For the football fans? For the national FAs? For the press? FIFA is the benevolent dictator to the national FAs, who more or less like it like that. The press rarely speak about or ask questions about problems at FIFA because they end up getting denied access.

It’s the fans that FIFA needs to worry about in the next years, and one can only hope that Blatter brings about much needed changes in global football – the kind of changes that will position FIFA as a leader of football as opposed to the evil overlord.

Blatter has an opportunity to define his legacy and one hopes that he does more than taking the World Cup to Africa, Russia and Middle East.

Can you think of anyone in FIFA who – when in charge – would be able to address its substantial problems and deal with them properly?

The one person who might stand a chance – and this is pure speculation – is Michel Platini. He’s against using technology to assist decisions in football, which is unfortunate as intelligent use of technology is definitely required when you’re making your money from hundreds of millions of football fans watching TV and seeing instant replays and therefore reacting to players, referees and the game in general in a certain way. He’s also blemish-free as far as various corruption scandals go.

He would still face tremendous challenges and I don’t think he will be able to, or want to, tackle corruption. Instead, if his UEFA tenure is anything to go by, he’ll work hard on improving football governance for the future, and that’s a lot to ask from one man.

And last – why do you think lord Triesman waited so long before he announced that some FIFA officials tried to bribe English bid team?

A lot of people supported Triesman when he spoke out against the Premier League immediately after coming in as FA chairman. These same people are now criticising him for his inept handling of the England 2018 bid (from the initial scandal that led to his resignation to his latest accusations). To me he’s always seemed like someone who is happy to pander to public opinion but is also out of touch with ground realities, and it’s this approach that has been behind all his problems in football.

Simply put, he’s waited so long because he wanted to make the claims in an official setting, which is an antiquated way of working but sadly that’s how the English try to govern their football. The problem is that because he’s got no clue of how to handle these situations, he’s made serious allegations without providing evidence to back them up and given the way his character was smeared in the initial scandal, he was unlikely to be judged favourably in the press.

The bribery accusations (of FIFA officials as well as against Dave Richards) are nothing new – this is how politics is done, and people who think football governance is different need a serious reality check. What’s unfortunate is that he’s had several opportunities – to improve English football governance, to present a credible bid for the World Cup, to expose corruption in FIFA – and he’s failed on all three accounts.

Which other World Cup bid do you think has come out as discredited as the England 2018 bid?

More Soccerlens.com articles on Hammam, Blatter and FIFA:

What They Didn’t Tell You About Mohammad Bin Hammam
FIFA Member Deems World Cup Corruption Probe ‘Unethical’
Hypocrisy is the business of football
A Tale Of Two Men…
FIFA, Sepp Blatter and Brbes
Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals at FIFA
The Future of FIFA

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