From issue: Energy in the Americas (Summer 2013)

Hard Talk

Does FIFA's corruption hurt the beautiful game?

Yes: Noah Davis; No: Juan C. Cappello

In this issue:
Illustration: Wesley Bedrosian

The series of scandals have not only tainted FIFA, but undermined trust in the game as well.

Noah Davis

Does FIFA’s corruption hurt the beautiful game? Yes

FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, is corrupt. The degree of corruption may be debatable, but its existence at the highest levels is not. Over the past three years, at least a dozen of the organization’s 24 Executive Committee (ExCo) members have been accused of serious improprieties stemming from bribes, illegal ticket sales and other scandals. While Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president since 1998, has escaped punishment—so far, at least—many of his colleagues have fallen or resigned. The endemic corruption not only compromises the quality of play on the field, but reduces fan support of the sport and tarnishes the beauty of the beautiful game.

For example, Jack Warner, the president of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), resigned in 2011 after facing numerous corruption and bribery charges. In 2006, FIFA’s Ethics Committee censured Warner after an audit revealed he made at least $1 million illegally selling World Cup tickets. Warner’s deputy, CONCACAF General Secretary Chuck Blazer, earned the nickname “Mr. 10 Percent” for his rumored skimming on deals and was suspended for “fraudulent” behavior in 2013.

The accusations, however, extend beyond CONCACAF. Paraguayan Nicolás Leoz, then-president of the South American Football Confederation, resigned after he reportedly took $130,000 from a marketing partner and requested knighthood in exchange for his vote supporting England’s 2018 World Cup bid. Brazilian Football Confederation President Ricardo Teixeira stepped down from the ExCo after allegations surfaced that he took $41 million in bribes. João Havelange, Teixeira’s former father-in-law, was also implicated. The 97-year-old, who served as president prior to Blatter, resigned from FIFA and the International Olympic Committee just before both organizations planned to take disciplinary action against him.

Still, despite the corruption, the game continues to grow. Selling the rights to the World Cup, which brings in nearly 90 percent of FIFA’s revenue, becomes a bigger business each quadrennial. And the sport is gaining traction in the U.S., Africa and other new markets. It is, increasingly, the world’s game.

So who cares if a bunch of old guys line their pockets while overseeing an era of expansion and growth? Does the corruption matter?

Yes, for a number of reasons. First, corruption creates a disconnect between the game’s governing body and the fans. Even the presumption of unethical activity undermines confidence that real change will come to FIFA. And with reason: efforts to overhaul FIFA’s leadership structures and introduce genuine reforms continue to stall. In April, Alexandra Wrage, the chair of the anti-corruption body Trace International, resigned from FIFA’s Independent Governance Committee (IGC) after noting her frustration that the panel, set up in 2011 to encourage transparency, had little to no impact. Wrage wrote a scathing article for Forbes blasting Blatter for ignoring IGC recommendations. IGC head Mark Pieth stayed on, and while he continues to advocate for FIFA to make salaries public, no one expects that to happen.

Second, corruption at the highest levels of FIFA reduces the incentive to deal with problems on the field that affect fan experience, namely racism on the pitch and match-fixing. ExCo members won’t take on more responsibility and accountability, jeopardizing their current comfortable situation, if they can instead continue to offer lip service to improving the game while doing little behind the scenes to affect real change.

In January, AC Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng walked off the field during a friendly-match against Pro Patria after being subjected to racist chants from fans. His teammates joined the protest and the incident made international news. A few weeks later, supporters of Dutch club Den Bosch gave Haitian-American Jozy Altidore similar treatment. The incidents were the latest in a series of ugly moments in the treatment of black players. While FIFA created the Task Force Against Racism and Discrimination and even approved stiffer penalties for offenders, the leaders of the sport simply lack the moral authority to make deeper change, such as systemicly weeding out of racism on a club-by-club basis.

Match-fixing has also run rampant. In February, Europol released the results of its 19-month Operation Veto that found 680 games with suspicious results, including 150 international friendlies and 380 World Cup and European championship qualifiers between 2008 and 2011. The Europol investigation found that the fixing activity implicated 425 people, including referees and players, some of whom received bribes of over $136,000.

While the majority of the fixing happened at the club level, the sport’s most powerful body should take ultimate responsibility for cleaning up the game. But fans won’t have faith that the ExCo will do so, when the committee itself is morally bankrupt. And if nothing is done to address past fixing, why should they believe it won’t rear its ugly head in the future?

Those who think FIFA’s current scandals will be forgotten in a few years should look no further than the cautionary tale of Major League Baseball. MLB’s steroids scandal of the late 1990s and the early 2000s still casts a shadow over the sport, even though the league has stepped up testing and enforcement. Now, if a player produces beyond what is expected of him for any significant period, whispers about performance-enhancing drugs follow quickly. Similarly, any time the calls in a FIFA match seem overtly tilted to favor one side over another, it will trigger suspicion of foul play. The details of MLB and FIFA’s transgressions are different, but the lesson is the same: break the public trust at your own risk.

There is no hope of cleaning up FIFA until Blatter is no longer president. But he isn’t going anywhere soon. The best-case scenario is that FIFA will take baby steps toward resolving the problems that lie below the surface. Every fan should be concerned that FIFA’s rotten core may have permanently stained the beautiful game.


Despite FIFA’s problems, billions around the world continue to be enthralled by the beautiful game.

Juan C. Cappello

Does FIFA’s corruption hurt the beautiful game? No.

FIFA’s $260 million headquarters complex in Zurich, Switzerland, with its huge glass façade and attractive parks, conveys a sense of modernity, openness and transparency—all qualities the organization lacks. Accusations of illegal or unsavory activities by the organization’s leadership have dominated the headlines, supplying critics with plenty of material.

FIFA’s Honorary President, legendary football figure João Havelange, stepped down in April because of “morally and ethically reproachable activities” regarding a $100 million bribery scandal with now-defunct German sports marketing firm ILS, according to a FIFA Ethics Committee report. The Ethics Committee chairman found FIFA President Sepp Blatter guilty of “clumsiness” in his handling of the same ILS scandal. And in May, the Ethics Committee provisionally banned Chuck Blazer, General Secretary of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), for “alleged serious misconduct.”

 But while the scandals have forced FIFA to do some damage control—and yes, heads have rolled—the sport itself remains unfazed. Football (or soccer, as it is known in the U.S.) is by far the most popular sport in the world, and it continues to grow. Fans continue to cheer passionately for both club and country—all the while generating major revenue for FIFA—regardless of the perceived corruption of a few faceless FIFA executives.

Obviously, football audiences worldwide want corruption at FIFA to go away. But they are willing to overlook questionable behavior as long as the beautiful game and the entertainment it provides remain uninterrupted.

To put things in perspective, it is important to understand the power of FIFA. Its membership includes more countries than those represented at the United Nations. Some 280 million male and female players are actively involved in the game, and tens of thousands of coaches and trainers, venue staff, agents, and advertisers profit from the FIFA system on every continent.

In an achievement no other sport can claim, one single event—the 2010 World Cup Final in South Africa—drew 3.2 billion viewers, half  the world’s population. Compare that with the 116.8 million TV viewers worldwide who watched the Super Bowl in 2012. That was a record for American football’s premier sport spectacle, but it amounted to only 5 percent of the 2010 World Cup Final’s audience.

The bottom line: the passion for the game, the billions of dollars in legitimate income it produces, and the worldwide demand it generates for related products, services and brands trumps any doubts about
FIFA’s capacity to withstand the accusations and convictions levied against the organization’s officials.

The controversies have not, for example, had an impact on the growth potential of the sport in the U.S., a country already saturated with professional sports. There are now 20 million men and women in the U.S. competing professionally or at the college, amateur or youth level who are registered with FIFA. Major League Soccer, currently comprising 19 teams and 12 football-specific stadiums, will grow to 20 teams in 2015 with the announced addition of the New York City F.C.—a franchise purchased for $100 million by English Premier League’s Manchester City F.C. and the New York Yankees.

Fandom is also on the rise in the United States. Viewership of the 2010 World Cup increased by 40 percent over the previous tournament. And the U.S. was home to one of the best-organized Cups in history in 1994.

Meanwhile, the World Cup qualifying rounds for Brazil 2014 attract millions of viewers globally, match after match. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League, a competition between top European clubs, has expanded its live broadcasts into other continents. The same applies to South America’s Copa Libertadores and the CONCACAF Champions League. Russia and Qatar—countries that controversially won their bids to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively—are moving ahead with large investments in national infrastructure, building appropriate facilities and providing jobs to thousands.

As FIFA’s success continues, so, unfortunately, will corruption within the organization. Under-the-table-payments, vote-buying and embezzlement have been endemic to FIFA throughout its near-110-year history.

One thing is different today, though. Due to the ease with which the public can access and disseminate information through traditional outlets and social media, actions by FIFA leaders are subject to daily scrutiny. Even the findings of ongoing police investigations are leaked to the public ahead of official press releases, before FIFA can put a favorable twist to them.

The bigger question is why FIFA, with its tradition of closed-door corruption, remains powerful. The answer is two-fold.

First, FIFA has no competition. The organization does an excellent job in the eyes of fans, players and advertisers, with its range of tournaments and competitions, international friendlies, and massive events like the 2013 Confederation Cup and 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It is football’s only international governing body, and it has permeated every corner of this earth, and most televisions. FIFA is simply too big to fail.

 Second, FIFA’s immense geographical reach has given it the financial resources and clout to withstand any outside efforts to impose reforms—and to argue it is capable of policing itself. The application of the 2004 FIFA Code of Ethics and a recently issued 4,000-page FIFA special report produced the suspensions and dismissals mentioned above. Underlining the point, after Europol investigations uncovered some 680 fixed “suspicious” matches in a two-year period, FIFA launched a special web page in February where whistleblowers can anonymously denounce corruption.

Such self-investigative procedures are also good PR. They allow one of the world’s most powerful business empires to not only avoid outside intervention, but reassure an audience of loyal fans who want the present crisis resolved to ensure continuity on the pitch.

Despite suffering through some of the most serious accusations ever leveled against the sport’s leadership, the beautiful game is not only healthy, but expanding. President Blatter will survive the rebuke to his management and FIFA will reform just enough to keep business running, uninterrupted.

Anyone doubting FIFA’s resilience and its ability to overcome the worldwide obsession with the organization’s scandals should ask the fans who were glued to their TVs for this summer’s Confederations Cup.