The U.S. Justice Department says the indictments it handed down Wednesday against soccer officials and sports-marketing executives are just the beginning of its efforts to root out corruption in the sport. A comprehensive investigation might find that the sport’s structure itself makes soccer vulnerable to corruption. FIFA disproportionately favors its smaller states, leaving the most corruptible members with outsize control over the organization.
FIFA has 209 member-nations, and each one’s soccer association is equally powerful in the sport’s governing body. Every member, from China (population: 1.36 billion) to tiny Montserrat (population: 5,215), gets one vote in the FIFA Congress. That means each one gets to cast a vote in the FIFA presidential election scheduled for this Friday in Zurich. And each one — from Brazil (five men’s World Cup wins, one of the world’s best women’s teams) to, well, let’s stick to Montserrat (men’s team never ranked higher than No. 165, women’s team unranked) — will get equal say in choosing hosts of future World Cups.
That wasn’t always the case. In 2010, the FIFA executive committee voted to select which countries would host the 2018 and 2022 men’s World Cup tournaments. That meant just 22 people participated in a controversial balloting that, astonishingly, awarded the 2022 tournament to Qatar, a nation with scant soccer history that doesn’t have soccer-suitable summer weather, bans same-sex sexual activity and has a poor record of worker safety and rights. (On Wednesday, Switzerland’s attorney general’s office said it had opened criminal proceedings around the selection of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts.)
In 2011, FIFA changed its voting rules. In future host selections, each member-association will get one vote. Multiplying the number of voters by nearly 10 should diminish the impact of any one corrupt vote.
The “one member, one vote” principle could, in theory, be a way for FIFA to protect its smallest members, much as the creators of the U.S. Senate intended in giving the smallest state the same number of senators as the biggest one. “Please note that the ‘one member one vote’ system was established since the foundation of FIFA and it relates to a democratic principle,” a FIFA spokesperson said by email in response to my inquiry.
In practice, this is one unequal form of democracy. While California has 66 times the population of the smallest U.S. states, there are more than 250,000 times the number of people living in China as in Montserrat.
This isn’t only a theoretical problem of inequity. Soccer power in smaller nations concentrates itself in fewer officials and stakeholders. That makes the nations’ votes — votes that occur in secret FIFA ballots — more vulnerable to corruption from bribery. In the indictments Wednesday, the Justice Department alleged, among other charges, that voters took bribes in both the selection of the 2010 men’s World Cup and the 2011 FIFA presidential election. Among those indicted was Jeffrey Webb, president of the football association of the Cayman Islands (population: 58,435).
But bribes aren’t the only thing that might influence those smaller nations. It’s aboveboard money, too. A small amount of funding from FIFA will go much further in a tiny island territory than in a superpower.
“If the organization had a stronger reputation for integrity, this might not matter so much,” Robin Hodess, group director of advocacy and research for the anti-corruption group Transparency International, said about FIFA’s voting structure. “This is a difficult issue to solve — you want democratic organizations, but you don’t want that to be abused,” Hodess said.
It didn’t help when FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter, announced higher World Cup bonuses for member-associations last year at the same time that he was signaling his intention to seek re-election, reneging on an earlier promise not to run again. “The link between who holds the purse strings and who votes was very blatant,” Hodess said.
On FIFA’s website, the organization posts specific funding information, by member, for two programs: Goal, for projects such as building new fields or association headquarters, and the Financial Assistance Program (FAP), which funds a wide range of projects. My colleague Paul Schreiber helped me pull the data for every active Goal project and for FAP payments from 2010 to 2014. I then cross-referenced the funding numbers with population and per-capita GDP figures to see whether bigger countries, or the poorer ones that we’d expect to need more funding, would get more help from FIFA.1
Whether a member state is big or small doesn’t seem to matter — FIFA spending isn’t tied to the number of people covered by the association. There was no correlation between a member’s population2 and the budget of active Goal projects. And there was a slight negative correlation between FAP spending and population — partly because the populous countries of China and Nigeria got less than average.3 Take, for example, the combined budget for the active Goal projects in Montserrat ($1.8 million)4 and compare it with that of projects in China ($3 million). Or the amount of FAP funds that the West Indies island received, $2.05 million, versus the amount China received, $800,000.
That’s not to say that members should necessarily get funds in proportion to their populations. The size of a country’s economy also affects its needs. But that doesn’t appear to enter into FIFA’s calculations, either. There is essentially no correlation between GDP per capita and Goal or FAP funding per capita.5
Funding is almost as evenly spread among FIFA members as voting power is. More than 90 percent of associations received between $1.8 million and $2.1 million from FAP between 2010 and 2014. Goal spending isn’t quite as flat, but 71 percent of members’ active projects have total budgets between $1 million and $3 million.
These aren’t bribes, and this isn’t traditional corruption: They’re totally legal, publicly disclosed funding projects. It’s just that a lot of them are in tiny countries with impotent soccer federations that spend it in dubious ways enriching their officials.
“It’s pure pork-barrel politics,” Bloomberg wrote in an investigation of FIFA’s finances last month. Bloomberg’s article ends by describing Blatter and other FIFA presidential candidates6 as they made their pitch to member-nations. Each one stressed expanding payments to member-associations — by the same amount to each member.