Fixing FIFA not an easy goal
Soccer's governing body lives in 'a netherworld of international governance'
Bribery, match-fixing, fraud — for years now, FIFA has played defence against allegations of corruption.
But on Wednesday, soccer's governing body was dealt arguably its most damaging blow, when Swiss authorities arrested seven high-ranking executives as part of a larger criminal investigation.
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People who have followed the legal action against FIFA in recent years say that the very nature of the organization has allowed it to operate with impunity for so long.
And there's no simple game plan to change that.
"The problem is [FIFA's] lack of accountability and that everything is out of the public eye," says Roger Pielke, a professor at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
On Wednesday, Swiss police, by request from the U.S. Department of Justice, arrested seven FIFA officials at a Zurich hotel.
The executives, who include FIFA vice-presidents Jeffrey Webb and Eugenio Figueredo, are among 14 indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice on charges of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy.
The U.S. investigation alleges that the corruption played out over 24 years. The head of the IRS criminal investigation division called it "the World Cup of fraud."
Hours later, Swiss federal prosecutors opened criminal proceedings related to the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively. Allegations of bribery have swirled around both bids for years.
A 'fake democracy'
One of the reasons there has been so little oversight of FIFA's activities is that the group falls into an unusual category, says Pielke.
FIFA is technically a non-profit, although one that brought in an estimated $2 billion US in revenue in 2014.
Organizations like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee "are not companies, they're not truly international organizations, like the World Health Organization, and they're not governmental," says Pielke.
Pielke calls FIFA "a Swiss-based members' club" that sits in a "netherworld of international governance." As a result, "there aren't good mechanisms in place to hold them accountable to anything."
Also, there's a problem with the way the organization is set up, says Jens Sejer Andersen, international director of Play the Game, a Denmark-based non-profit aimed at promoting transparency in sport.
"All international sports organizations have a structure that's very vulnerable to corruption, and almost inevitably it becomes corrupt if money starts pouring in," says Andersen.
Founded in 1904 and based in Zurich, FIFA (or, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) has 209 member countries, each of which has a vote on issues ranging from rule changes to the awarding of major tournaments.
While the one-country, one-vote system seems equitable, Andersen calls it a "fake democracy."
Smaller, poorer countries may have the same voting weight as bigger, richer ones, but Andersen says the money FIFA disburses to those smaller countries in the name of soccer development pretty much guarantees "their votes will be secured."
Furthermore, as FIFA increasingly looks beyond Europe to stage its marquee and most profitable event — the quadrennial World Cup — it is dealing with countries that have poor records on transparency.
This only increases the potential for bribery.
"These mega-events mobilize a lot of money and infrastructure spending by governments, and that provides a lot of opportunity for graft, for corruption and so on," says Pielke.
'It can't reform itself'
Allegations of bribery and fraud have dogged FIFA for at least 15 years, and current president Sepp Blatter has met them with both denials and pledges to reform the organization.
Despite its seeming willingness to change, FIFA has rejected recommendations to provide, for example, greater transparency of the salaries of its members.
Several years ago, in light of growing concern over the integrity of the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, FIFA brought in U.S. lawyer Michael Garcia to investigate.
After 19 months of work, Garcia produced a 430-page report. But FIFA only released a 42-page excerpt and cleared itself of any wrongdoing. Garcia quit his post as FIFA ethics investigator in disgust, assailing the organization's "lack of leadership."
Says Pielke, "I think it's fair to say that FIFA has shown that it can't reform itself."
One way of fixing a troubled organization like FIFA is to set term limits for its president, says Richard Powers, a professor at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto and an expert in sports marketing and governance.
Blatter, who has led the organization for 17 years, is seeking his fifth term in a vote to be held in Zurich on Friday.
While Blatter himself hasn't been charged with wrongdoing, Powers says that in an organization like FIFA, the tone is set "at the top."
Even British Prime Minister David Cameron has weighed in, saying that Blatter should step aside and let rival Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan assume FIFA's presidency.
Blatter's next move?
Declan Hill, a Canadian journalist and author of The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime, believes that despite the latest scandal, Friday's vote will likely be a "coronation" for Blatter.
Why? Because it's not in the interest of smaller FIFA nations, who have benefitted from FIFA's largesse, to oust him, says Hill.
He says one thing that would have a significant influence on FIFA's governance is if major sponsors went on the offensive.
"He who pays the piper calls the tune, and the sponsors have been supplying the day-to-day money for FIFA for years," says Hill.
Visa has already threatened to withdraw its sponsorship, while Scotiabank said it is reviewing its involvement with the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), which is part of the FIFA family.