August 2, 2011

Down with Sepp

     With the international debt crisis looming closer and closer over the horizon, many governments have been desperate to find new sources of revenue. There is one private international organization that is not in such dire financial straits; in fact quite the opposite. FIFA, the world’s governing body on soccer earns billions of dollars every year, although not always to the benefit of the rest of the world. In the climate of global economic duress and corporate administrators operating like selfish aristocrats, there exists a need to reign in groups that gouge their clients and utilize corrupt business practices. Their current publicity campaign titled “Fair Play” may be meant to apply to the game itself, but in the boardroom the fact is that, economically and politically, they don’t play fairly. FIFA is the world’s governing body on soccer, and thus should be a transparent organization committed to strengthening the game and its profile world-wide. Despite its humble origins, FIFA has often been beset with controversy and corruption, leading to a sense of distrust towards the group amongst the fans, coaches and players alike. The world’s most popular sport deserves administrators who are passionate about the game rather than passionate about profit. The inclusion of more advocates for the game involved in its administration, transparent business practices, the technological improvement of officiating, and fair and open elections are changes necessary to preserve the remaining credibility of not just FIFA, but of the game itself.

     Soccer has been played in many forms since as early as the eighth century and professionally started with a very humble background. The 1860’s saw the formation of the first football association and unified rules of play. The need arose for a single governing body for soccer in the early 20th century as the popularity of international match-ups grew. On May 21 1904, FIFA was formed in Paris with the aim of bringing together national associations for tournaments and competitions. While it began as a small organization, it has today become much more influential both economically and politically. The organization is run by the President who is elected by the FIFA congress, the body made up of appointed representatives from each of the 208 member countries’ respective football associations. The congress also elects the general secretary as well as the FIFA executive committee, which is made up of 8 vice-presidents and 15 members. Of all the current members of the FIFA executive council, only 4 members played soccer at any level. Together, this group is responsible for the regulation of the sport of soccer world-wide, and the implementation of rules as well as many tournaments and events.

     FIFA is most renowned for holding the World Cup, one of the most popular international sporting events in the world. The selection process for each tournament’s host nation is a vote put to the 15 member FIFA executive committee. Candidates are eliminated in successive rounds until there is only one bid left. There have been a number of claims that the selection process is unfair, corrupt, and an extension of world politics. Furthermore, there have been numerous allegations over the years that money is paid to members of the executive committee in order to obtain their vote, or that promises of votes fail to materialize. There have been suggestions from member associations that the FIFA congress should vote for the host nation rather than just the executive committee. Mali Football Federation president Hammadoun Kolado Cisse echoed this idea, saying "[w]e should give the responsibility of deciding who hosts the World Cup to the FIFA General Assembly," continuing, "If every country can vote on who hosts the event, that will cut down on corruption because you can't corrupt 208 federations." (, 18 May 2011). In 2011, FIFA broke with tradition and held the vote for both the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids simultaneously. It has been suggested that there were trades of votes amongst the bidders, establishing a “you vote for me, I’ll vote for you” atmosphere. The winners emerged as Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. Many complaints were filed against FIFA and the executive committee by the bidding countries, England in particular, claiming that the movement of money influenced the selection of the two hosts. Today, a number of members of the FIFA executive committee, including North America’s soccer federation head Jack Warner, have been suspended in relation to bribery accusations and the bid selection process. Despite these opening problems, there are surely more to follow for both hosts and guests in the lead up and execution of the tournament.

     The business practices of FIFA are often criticized based on their high profile and rather strange agreements they come to with host nations. FIFA is often lauded for its donations to charity, but this praise is often lost in a cacophony of financial criticism. FIFA, as the proprietor of the World Cup, uses this great sporting event as leverage for them to utilize a business model where they and their sponsors have privileged access to certain areas. The distance can vary based on the location, but generally within 2 miles of the official game stadiums only the products of the sponsors of that tournament are allowed to be served, essentially phasing out all competition. To top this rather monopolistic practice off, the host nation and FIFA reach an agreement wherein FIFA is exempt from paying taxes in that nation completely in return for letting that nation host the tournament. In this day and age when governments are struggling to turn a profit and pay their bills, the world’s most popular sport essentially makes an exclusive profit from the tournament. Minus the percentage that the sponsors and stadium owners receive, the remainder of the revenue they take in from ticket sales, food, refreshments, and licensed apparel goes back into the FIFA coffers in Zurich. In the years leading up to a tournament, FIFA also reserves the right to disobey local labor laws in order to expedite the building of stadia and surrounding venues. The price a nation pays for hosting the tournament is truly a gamble, in that it is uncertain if unaffiliated businesses, hotels, and the like can make up for this massive tax exemption based on the number of visitors the tournament will draw. While these tournaments don’t cripple a nation’s economy, they have the potential to cause serious disruption. In the case of South Africa’s 2010 tournament, 2 of the brand new stadiums specifically built for the tournament, whose sites saw protests against the conditions for the workers, are in danger of closing due to the lack of local fans that are able to afford a ticket. This blatant profiteering is reprehensible considering FIFA’s status in the world as the head of its most popular sport, as their actions suggest motives that are anything but popular in nature.

     When it comes to sports in general, one of the common controversies that arise is errors in officiating. There are examples of failures in the officiating of games in just about every World Cup, yet while similar problems seem to come up every 4 years, there is little actually done to remedy them. There is a debate going on right now about the use of technology such as instant replay and microchips implanted within the ball for detecting if it crosses the goal line. The main arguments against new technology aiding in game decisions is half based on logic and half on technophobia. The first reason for FIFA shying away from these technologies is because there are a number of nations that can’t afford it, and they go on to argue that if you can’t implement it at the lowest level, then it shouldn’t be done at the highest. The second part of the argument against technology is that it takes the game away from people and turns it into, as UEFA chief Michel Platini put it, PlayStation football. This side argues that people aren’t perfect, and the game should reflect this through its chance and unpredictability. These arguments are keeping soccer from advancing like so many other international sports have. Basketball, hockey, and American football officiating have been greatly improved with the introduction of video replay, as would soccer. There shouldn’t be a need for a sporting administrator to have to hold a press conference and apologize for a team not getting the right result based on the calls that were made, when they had the opportunity to change to rules of the game in the first place. The only talk of a referee should be about how, at times with the help of a 5th official in charge of replay analysis, they got it right. The fact that the FIFA president is more open to apologizing for results rather than actively attempting to fix problems before they occur demonstrates but one of the ways that the current head of FIFA is failing at his position.

     There are a number of criticisms of FIFA’s president Sepp Blatter, each building on the idea that this man is only making his organization look worse through his actions. Blatter has courted criticism and scandal before, mainly in the form of bribery allegations. As a spokesman for FIFA, Blatter has put his foot in his mouth on more than one occasion. In 2004 Blatter suggested that women players’ uniforms should have lower cut tops and shorter shorts to create a more feminine aesthetic, much to the insult of female players everywhere. On the topic of gay fans that might attend the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, a nation where homosexual activity is illegal, Blatter said jokingly that gay fans should refrain from any homosexual activity while there. If his words and business deals weren’t making him a big enough target for criticism, his actions are the icing on the controversial cake. At the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Blatter was noticeably absent at the award ceremony. The president of FIFA is supposed to hand out medals to the winning and losing team, as well as the trophy to the winning team captain at the end of the World Cup final. There is wide speculation that Blatter was upset that Italy had won over France, despite his claim that he left for fear of being whistled and jeered. The fact that he was derelict in his duties in one of the biggest sporting events of the year for personal reasons demonstrates his selfish attitude towards the game and FIFA itself. During the 2018/2022 World Cup selection vote, Blatter demonstrated his bias towards Europe, insisting that the 2018 World Cup would be held in Europe despite being there in 2006, and that any bid from outside that area would have its chances at subsequent tournament bids damaged in the eyes of the FIFA high council. The most controversial event involving Blatter was his election to a 4th term as FIFA President. After the selection of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts, many associations and journalists alike accused FIFA’s voting process of being unfair and full of backroom dealings for votes. The only other candidate for the 2011 FIFA presidential election, Mohammed bin Hammam, was forced to withdraw before the election due to allegations fielded against him in connection to bribery and his successful 2022 Qatar World Cup bid. He was not the only other person, however, that sought to run against Blatter.

     In 2011, Sports Illustrated soccer journalist Grant Wahl decided that enough was enough; he would run for the FIFA presidency. With a large fan base and a strong soccer journalism background, Wahl set out to secure the nomination of one of the 208 national associations. He labeled his campaign the people’s campaign, running on the ideas of opening up FIFA’s financial records, changing the host selection process, and bringing in video replay in order to keep the game’s credibility high. Truly a fan’s advocate for the game, he only needed the nomination of one of the 208 member nations in order to be on the ballot. In the time leading up to the 61st FIFA congress, Wahl got into contact with and lobbied many national football associations trying to acquire the one nomination he needed. According to Wahl, the national associations rely on FIFA’s financial support, and that opposition or criticism can lead to politically motivated denial of this money. At the 61st congress, Wahl met with an unnamed source who was the head of a World Cup winning association. When asked why the US federation, the home association of Wahl, his response was simply "They fear the negative reaction down the road from Blatter and FIFA." (, 1 April 2011). Wahl goes on to explain that “nominating a candidate for FIFA president would be a public declaration -- subject to negative blowback from Blatter and Platini -- while the actual vote on June 1 is a secret ballot. ‘We would be more likely to vote for you in the election than to nominate you,’ he told me. ‘Nominating you is impossible.’” Essentially what kept Grant Wahl from gaining a nomination, despite support from fans around the world as well as tacit support for him from various associations, was fear – the fear of losing out on the money FIFA has. Wahl was also facing adversity due to his nationality: American. Since he wasn’t from Europe, nor was he from a soccer super-power, he was considered to be doomed as an outsider. The political games countries must play in in order to gain financial support are one of the biggest problems with the organization today. Wahl got in touch with three time South American player of the year Elías Figueroa who planned to run on a transparent business practice platform himself. Surprisingly, Figueroa was unable to get the nomination of his own association, which he was the president of. “If you're wondering how impenetrable and fear-inducing FIFA's ruling hierarchy is, imagine this: The Chilean FA refused to nominate the greatest player in its nation's history. Think about that for a second. If Figueroa couldn't do it, it shouldn't be surprising that I couldn't either.” The idea that an association won’t nominate a good candidate because of the potential backlash in the event that candidate loses is the ultimate corruption of democracy, and goes against the concept of fair play.

     Despite the good FIFA may do, there is a need for a drastic overhaul in order to correct the existing problems. To hope for all of these things to happen is rather naïve when considering the way in which the business world actually works. We must, as fans, hold on to the naiveté that the game can go back to its simpler and more humble origins. That passion for the game that lets us imagine a system without corruption is the biggest thing missing in modern soccer, and by extension modern economics as a whole. Clearly there is a problem with this organization, and considering the clout it has there must be a solution. First, we should consider that the majority of the members of the FIFA congress, executive committee, and even the President himself are not and were not ever players. While a professional athlete may only have the training to play their game, the administration of that game behind the scenes should be undertaken at least by people with a background in the sport itself. Bringing in businessmen who only see the large financial gain from this international sports conglomerate in the modern climate of financial misdealing is setting the organization up for failure and corruption. A reform of the way the game is officiated at the highest level is well past due, and FIFA’s top rule makers keeping their heads in the sand on the issue only makes things worse. Since FIFA is a world body, they owe it to their sport’s fans to be more open in terms of information about the inner workings of the organization. The use of capital and political leverage for the gain of a few is the exact opposite of fair play. Without an open playing field, fans will eventually be turned away from the game they are so passionate about.

Works cited

"BBC Sport - Mali Want World Cup Voting Change." BBC News - Home. 18 May 2011. Web. 04 July 2011. <>.

" - About FIFA." - Fédération Internationale De Football Association (FIFA). Web. 18 July 2011. <>.

Wahl, Grant. "What Happened When Grant Wahl Ran for FIFA President - Grant Wahl -" Sports Illustrated, 4 May 2011. Web. 04 July 2011.