FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, is corrupt. The degree of corruption may be debatable, but its existence at the highest levels is not. Over the past three years, at least a dozen of the organization’s 24 Executive Committee (ExCo) members have been accused of serious improprieties stemming from bribes, illegal ticket sales and other scandals. While Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president since 1998, has escaped punishment—so far, at least—many of his colleagues have fallen or resigned. The endemic corruption not only compromises the quality of play on the field, but reduces fan support of the sport and tarnishes the beauty of the beautiful game.
For example, Jack Warner, the president of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), resigned in 2011 after facing numerous corruption and bribery charges. In 2006, FIFA’s Ethics Committee censured Warner after an audit revealed he made at least $1 million illegally selling World Cup tickets. Warner’s deputy, CONCACAF General Secretary Chuck Blazer, earned the nickname “Mr. 10 Percent” for his rumored skimming on deals and was suspended for “fraudulent” behavior in 2013.
The accusations, however, extend beyond CONCACAF. Paraguayan Nicolás Leoz, then-president of the South American Football Confederation, resigned after he reportedly took $130,000 from a marketing partner and requested knighthood in exchange for his vote supporting England’s 2018 World Cup bid. Brazilian Football Confederation President Ricardo Teixeira stepped down from the ExCo after allegations surfaced that he took $41 million in bribes. João Havelange, Teixeira’s former father-in-law, was also implicated. The 97-year-old, who served as president prior to Blatter, resigned from FIFA and the International Olympic Committee just before both organizations planned to take disciplinary action against him.
Still, despite the corruption, the game continues to grow. Selling the rights to the World Cup, which brings in nearly 90 percent of FIFA’s revenue, becomes a bigger business each quadrennial. And the sport is gaining traction in the U.S., Africa and other new markets. It is, increasingly, the world’s game.
So who cares if a bunch of old guys line their pockets while overseeing an era of expansion and growth? Does the corruption matter?
Yes, for a number of reasons. First, corruption creates a disconnect between the game’s governing body and the fans. Even the presumption of unethical activity undermines confidence that real change will come to FIFA. And with reason: efforts to overhaul FIFA’s leadership structures and introduce genuine reforms continue to stall. In April, Alexandra Wrage, the chair of the anti-corruption body Trace International, resigned from FIFA’s Independent Governance Committee (IGC) after noting her frustration that the panel, set up in 2011 to encourage transparency, had little to no impact. Wrage wrote a scathing article for Forbes blasting Blatter for ignoring IGC recommendations. IGC head Mark Pieth stayed on, and while he continues to advocate for FIFA to make salaries public, no one expects that to happen.
Second, corruption at the highest levels of FIFA reduces the incentive to deal with problems on the field that affect fan experience, namely racism on the pitch and match-fixing. ExCo members won’t take on more responsibility and accountability, jeopardizing their current comfortable situation, if they can instead continue to offer lip service to improving the game while doing little behind the scenes to affect real change.
In January, AC Milan’s Kevin-Prince Boateng walked off the field during a friendly-match against Pro Patria after being subjected to racist chants from fans. His teammates joined the protest and the incident made international news. A few weeks later, supporters of Dutch club Den Bosch gave Haitian-American Jozy Altidore similar treatment. The incidents were the latest in a series of ugly moments in the treatment of black players. While FIFA created the Task Force Against Racism and Discrimination and even approved stiffer penalties for offenders, the leaders of the sport simply lack the moral authority to make deeper change, such as systemicly weeding out of racism on a club-by-club basis.
Match-fixing has also run rampant. In February, Europol released the results of its 19-month Operation Veto that found 680 games with suspicious results, including 150 international friendlies and 380 World Cup and European championship qualifiers between 2008 and 2011. The Europol investigation found that the fixing activity implicated 425 people, including referees and players, some of whom received bribes of over $136,000.
While the majority of the fixing happened at the club level, the sport’s most powerful body should take ultimate responsibility for cleaning up the game. But fans won’t have faith that the ExCo will do so, when the committee itself is morally bankrupt. And if nothing is done to address past fixing, why should they believe it won’t rear its ugly head in the future?
Those who think FIFA’s current scandals will be forgotten in a few years should look no further than the cautionary tale of Major League Baseball. MLB’s steroids scandal of the late 1990s and the early 2000s still casts a shadow over the sport, even though the league has stepped up testing and enforcement. Now, if a player produces beyond what is expected of him for any significant period, whispers about performance-enhancing drugs follow quickly. Similarly, any time the calls in a FIFA match seem overtly tilted to favor one side over another, it will trigger suspicion of foul play. The details of MLB and FIFA’s transgressions are different, but the lesson is the same: break the public trust at your own risk.
There is no hope of cleaning up FIFA until Blatter is no longer president. But he isn’t going anywhere soon. The best-case scenario is that FIFA will take baby steps toward resolving the problems that lie below the surface. Every fan should be concerned that FIFA’s rotten core may have permanently stained the beautiful game.