Over the weekend, two stories broke involving alleged corruption and FIFA, the Swiss-based international organization that oversees soccer worldwide (including the World Cup). These particular allegations are new, but they’re not surprising. Research I conducted recently suggests that FIFA faces considerable obstacles to dealing with corruption, both on the field and within its ranks.
First, The New York Times reported that in the lead up to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, an Asian gambling syndicate compromised the South African Football Association. The South African FA allegedly allowed referees who were working for the Singapore-based syndicate to officiate a number of international friendlies. The referees allegedly “fixed” a number of matches, typically by awarding ghost penalties, running up the score to the benefit of gamblers in on the fix.
Second, in London, The Sunday Times published a trove of documents from a FIFA whistleblower detailing payments to FIFA officials made by a former FIFA executive in Qatar, allegedly to help Qatar win the vote to host the 2022 World Cup. The Sunday Times’ revelations are the latest in a long series of similar stories surrounding the 2018 and 2022 World Cup votes (conducted simultaneously) dating to 2010, when The Sunday Times went undercover to reveal several members of FIFA’s executive committee trying to sell their votes for cash.
For FIFA, unfortunately, allegations of corruption and bribery are nothing new. In 2011, FIFA embarked on a governance-reform effort to address an earlier round of accusations of corruption. Last December, the organization declared the effort a success and closed it down. To better understand what the effort had accomplished, I compared FIFA’s actions to recommendations from:
- A 2011 report FIFA commissioned from Mark Pieth of the Basel Institute of Governance;
- A 2011 report by Transparency International, an independent governance watchdog;
- And a 2012 report by FIFA’s governance-reform committee.
There are obviously some judgment calls here, but what I found does not lend itself to much optimism that FIFA has fixed its problems, and thus improved its ability to deal with corruption on and off the pitch.
Of the 59 total recommendations in the three reports, FIFA implemented only seven, partially implemented 10 and failed to implement 42. There is some overlap across the reports, and a close look at reforms left undone reveals nine important areas where action has been recommended for FIFA to raise its governance standards to those expected in the international business community.
Although FIFA took some positive steps, such as creating a ethics committee with investigative powers, it avoided many steps that are basic to governance of organizations which turn over billions of dollars every year. The reforms that it avoided implementing generally involved opening up the organization to independent oversight and management (such as might be found on a corporate board of directors) and increasing the organization’s transparency. For example, FIFA stood firm that it would not release the compensation of its president, Sepp Blatter.
FIFA has an internal investigator — the one appointed as a result of the reform effort — looking into the allegations surrounding the Qatar 2022 vote. He is supposed to release his report soon after this year’s World Cup in Brazil. History would tell us not to expect much. For FIFA, the project of governance reform has a long way to go. The good news for soccer fans and fans of good governance is that the pressure on FIFA to raise its game continues to mount.