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FiveThirtyEight Finally Fixes FIFA

UPDATE (Sept. 25, 12:10 p.m.): Swiss authorities announced Friday that they were opening a criminal investigation into the activities of Sepp Blatter, the head of FIFA. In June, when the FIFA corruption scandal broke, some of FiveThirtyEight’s editors and writers wildly speculated about building a new organization to right the wrongs of the old. Here’s an edited transcript of the Slack conversation we held.


Carl Bialik (FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for news): Sepp Blatter is stepping down as FIFA president. For the first time in 17 years, the global governing body of soccer will get new leadership. Domenico Scala, the chairman of FIFA’s audit committee, promised to work toward reforms. Blatter himself called for a “profound restructuring.

These are heady times for FIFA reformers. Many reformers in the past have proposed incremental changes like Scala’s, including term limits, robust anticorruption measures, transparency on executive pay and independent integrity checks. Lots of these suggestions probably are sensible and could improve governance, and they could have a better shot in the post-Blatter era.

But let’s dream big, like the 24 teams contesting the FIFA Women’s World Cup starting this week. How would you change FIFA? Or if you could start it from scratch, what would it look like? I wrote last week about how one-country, one-vote lends itself to pork-barrel projects and corruption. What system would work better?

Chadwick Matlin (senior editor): This, to me, feels like a governance/political science question as much as a sports one. What’s the best way for an organization to represent its people? And is it any different when it’s a diverse collection of nations instead of, say, one nation?

Carl Bialik: Good question, Chad. It’s easier to say something is askew when Brazil, China and the U.S. have the same voting power as the Cayman Islands, the Seychelles and San Marino, than it is to figure out how best to apportion voting power.

Neil Paine (senior sportswriter): Last week, Nate Silver wrote about what FIFA representation might look like if it was weighted more toward the nations more valuable to FIFA’s viewing audience. That’s one model of how to parcel out influence; I wonder what an alternative would be that doesn’t simultaneously fall into the same traps as the system in place under Blatter.

Nate Silver (editor in chief): Even if you didn’t use an audience weighted toward the economic size of a country — and I can imagine all sorts of problems with doing that — you could at least use the unweighted audience numbers. Basically, how many soccer fans are there in each country? China ought to have way more voting power than Curacao.

Chadwick Matlin: But more than Brazil?

Carl Bialik: I’d also want to represent soccer players, because FIFA helps set rules and the tone for the global game. It might be time for FIFA to do another Big Count of its global players. Is there a way to also account for the untapped potential of countries to increase their interest in soccer? I worry that if we go by the sport’s current status worldwide we lock that in. The best part of Blatter’s reputation is what he did to grow the game worldwide, though I’m not sure that’s deserved.

David Firestone (managing editor): Any global organization will have to deal with the same kinds of alliances, jealousies and resentments that a body like the U.N. does. The U.N. is hardly a great model for effectiveness, but since the stakes are much lower, a bicameral system like the Security Council/General Assembly probably still makes sense, giving extra weight to the big soccer powers. There would have to be far more transparency and outside monitoring than there is now, however.

Allison McCann (visual journalist and former center midfielder for the Boston Breakers): But how do you award voting power to countries with two very different tiers of men’s and women’s programs? I’m thinking somewhere like Argentina, whose men’s teams finished second in the World Cup, but whose women’s team is not even at this year’s World Cup.

Chadwick Matlin: Should women’s soccer and men’s soccer be represented by the same body? Has that been good for women’s soccer?

Nate Silver: I’m fine with the notion that we aren’t counting past soccer success in allocating governing resources within FIFA. So, sure, China gets more power than Brazil — 1.4 billion people will do that for you. China has been one of the big failure stories under Blatter, really. The men’s team hasn’t improved at all, and the women’s team has regressed. And Allison, if we were using any women’s soccer-related indicators, it would heavily favor Europe, the Americas, Japan, etc. Unsurprisingly perhaps, countries that have better records for women’s rights and human rights in general have better women’s soccer teams.

Allison McCann: Yeah, I was interested in that too, Nate. We looked briefly at the U.N. Gender Inequality Index to see how this held up; the biggest outlier was Brazil.


Our sports podcast Hot Takedown discusses Blatter’s resignation and the women’s World Cup. Subscribe on iTunes.


Carl Bialik: Better records for rights sounds like a pretty good criterion for deciding who gets to run things!

David Firestone: And also transparency. Countries and soccer programs that don’t have a good record of opening their books and decision-making to the public should have a harder time getting into the central body of FIFA, whatever it turns out to be.

Carl Bialik: Transparency is a real theme in past reform efforts — for instance, releasing compensation information. I wonder if those efforts stick once people who wanted Blatter out have stopped paying attention to what comes next. Blatter was a master at calling for reforms and transparency, commissioning outside studies and then watering them down or not releasing them.

David Firestone: Good point, Carl. They never took the need for reform seriously in the past, but a knock on the door by the FBI seems to have changed things quickly. At a minimum, it seems like Blatter’s replacement should insist on outside directors and outside inspector-generals to ensure that transparency is real from now on. Instituting strict term limits for directors would eliminate the entrenched bureaucrats and ensure that a variety of countries get a chance at governing.

Neil Paine: A lot of this also gets into the mission of FIFA as a whole. What should its purpose be beyond simply governing the sport itself — or is that inextricably political in nature because it’s an international organization?

Carl Bialik: Someone needs to run the World Cups, right? If not FIFA, who? And with the kind of money involved, seems like politics is inevitable.

Nate Silver: Well, we see how complicated this can get. Personally, I have a huge problem with the World Cup having been awarded to Qatar for its record on gay rights and women’s rights alone. (Along with like 12 other reasons.) But: should Western values prevail? Are they more “universal” than other values, by virtue of being more tolerant? I’m not arguing for relativism here — I love me my liberal, Western values — but I’m saying it gets complicated real fast.

Neil Paine: The cynical devil’s advocate might ask whether the World Cup should exist at all in its current form, given the non-positive presence it’s been known to have on local economies. But that in and of itself is an argument that only countries with existing infrastructure should host World Cups, which tends to heavily favor developed (and Western) nations, which is also problematic.

Chadwick Matlin: I think this Slackchat is setting a FiveThirtyEight record for the number of question marks being used — this stuff is extraordinarily complicated. Maybe the question isn’t, “How should FIFA be restructured to stop corruption?” It’s “Can FIFA be restructured to stop corruption?”

Nate Silver: But here’s the thing. Whether or not the wealthier, high-population countries have de jure power within FIFA, they have a lot of de facto power. A lot of leverage. As we wrote last week, the OECD countries, plus Brazil and Argentina, could render the World Cup totally unprofitable and unwatchable if they staged an opposing tournament. And the smaller countries would probably want to sign on to the OECD World Cup if given the choice.

Carl Bialik: Yeah, I think Nate’s piece answers the question of whether FIFA can be restructured — or started over from scratch. (Maybe this time with an English-based acronym, not a French one.) At the cost of adding another question mark to the record total: Nate, do you think your breakaway soccer organization would be better for the game? I guess it couldn’t be much more corrupt, so there’s that.

Nate Silver: In a perfect world, I suppose, they’d leave FIFA, but everyone would rejoin them again under some new umbrella organization after four or eight years. To some extent, that puts us back at square one. You still need to figure out the rules of the new federation. But at least you’d rid FIFA of some of its corruption in the near-to-medium term.

David Firestone: But at some point the smaller countries are going to have to accept that global soccer is about the game, not about economic development. It’s been depressing to see how many developing countries have seen these games as a step toward enrichment, which FIFA has eagerly fed.

Nate Silver: It’s not at all clear that FIFA has helped those countries at all economically. Or in football, for that matter. I’ll have some more numbers on this in an article later, but Africa didn’t improve at all under Blatter’s tenure. Asia maybe got a bit worse, especially the larger Asian countries like China.

David Firestone: You mean because the cash for smaller countries has been siphoned off by top officials?

Nate Silver: It’s a little outside of my knowledge base to know how that money is being spent. But in theory, it’s supposed to help them develop their national soccer programs, and we haven’t seen much evidence of improvement on the pitch.

Allison McCann: I’m with Nate. I think FIFA’s too ruined for restructuring or reorganizing — time to blow it up and start over.

Oliver Roeder (senior writer): Yes, burn it to the ground. FIFA doesn’t really “govern the sport,” right? It doesn’t make the rules — that’s done by the International Football Association Board. UEFA runs the Champions League. The Premier League is its own self-governing corporation. FIFA exists for one thing: the World Cup. It has to pick the place and figure out how to draw team names out of pots. Those are important things to figure out, yes, but don’t seem like rocket science. Why not stick it in the U.N., as has been suggested, or in the Swiss government — they’re impartial, right? The discussion of bicameralism and proportional representation and so on seems of second-order concern. What it needs is oversight, not internal structural fine-tuning.

Allison McCann: Step one: The new FIFA is run by a woman. I nominate the great Pia Sundhage from a neutral country like Sweden with strong interests in both the men’s and women’s programs. That’s all I have for a start, hah!

Nate Silver: It looks like FIFA’s executive committee had, what, only two or three women?

Carl Bialik: I think one full member. And she was the first when she was elected in 2013! I like Ollie’s point — maybe the sport doesn’t need a single governing body. In fact, maybe it really doesn’t have one. We’d still have to figure out how to divvy up the spoils from World Cups, but as Nate and David point out, that isn’t being divvied up so well now. The weaker countries aren’t getting that much better, and lots of the money appears to have ended up enriching soccer officials rather than expanding the game.

Nate Silver: Here’s one reform that could help the up-and-coming countries: more teams in the World Cup finals. Forty instead of 32.

Carl Bialik: Prince Ali, the runner-up to Blatter in last week’s election, called for 36. Forty sounds even better.

When I was preparing for this chat — hey, we don’t just mouth off, really! — I asked Deborah Unger, a former journalist who works in media relations for Transparency International, to weigh in. TI had studied FIFA reform before. She reasonably replied, “I think this will take more than a few minutes. … I don’t think we have time to design a new FIFA this evening. Is your deadline really now?” It’s a reasonable question. I don’t think we’ll settle things with this chat, but on the other hand, if World Cup governance is going to dramatically improve, it should probably happen soon, when everyone is paying attention.

Nate Silver: I’m not leaving the office until we’ve solved soccer’s global governance problems. In the meantime, can we agree about what toppings to get on this pizza?


CORRECTION (June 3, 10 a.m.): An earlier version of this post referred incorrectly to a United Nations statistical measure. It is the Gender Inequality Index, not the Gender Equality Index.

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