I attended an all boys’ high school which was modelled along the lines of an English public school – blazers (in 30 degree Zimbabwean heat), diagonally-striped ties, rugby, cricket and learning about how to be a young gentleman. One of my favourite sports was not on offer, namely football. So what we ended up doing was we started playing unsanctioned (by the school authorities) football games on one of the hockey pitches during our lunch period.
What ended up happening was these games became a competition between the younger boys (aged 17 years) versus the older boys (aged 18 years). There was no referee or other form of officialdom as was to be expected of an unsanctioned event, but players were expected to stop for obvious fouls, throw-ins or where the ball went dead. The game would last approximately an hour (the period of the lunch break) and then we’d all head off to our respective practice sessions. If the older boys were ahead, the game would sometimes end before the unofficial hour mark but if us younger boys were ahead the game would not end until the senior boys had at least scored an equalising goal or, even better, won the game outright.
Looking back, there was no reason why we younger boys could not have simply walked off the pitch if we were winning and the time was up but we did not. Perhaps it was a combination of fear (of physical retribution) or maybe it was the absence of formal rules and regulations that meant we had nothing to fall back on, but (at the time) we simply felt powerless to do what we felt was right.
The Fédération Internationale de Football Association or ,Fifa as it is more commonly known, appears to have the same effect of rendering people seemingly powerless against its every move. Recent, and not-so-recent, events have pushed Fifa to the forefront of the news and it seems that the allegations of corruption, bribery and impropriety simply refuse to disappear.
Why, do I hear you ask, are allegations of corruption and bribery of importance to the man on the street? Why should we care about what Fifa gets up to when they are not organising World Cups?
The answer is to those questions is that Fifa is in charge of the world’s most popular game and as a result of the intense and constant public scrutiny that all organisations face in the 21st century, this means that there are more people demanding accountability and transparency around what happens at Fifa headquarters.
For those not overly familiar with the world of football and its politics, Fifa is the international governing body for association football, futsal (played on a smaller pitch and mainly played indoors) and beach football. Fifa is responsible for the organisation and governance of football’s major international tournaments, most notably the World Cup, held since 1930. Fifa is an association established under the laws of Switzerland and its headquarters are in Zurich. In Switzerland, Fifa, and other sports governing bodies, enjoy historic exemptions from tax and immunity from anti-corruption treaties. This protected status is currently subject to an investigation by the Swiss government, expected to take three years.
In a similar fashion to non-governmental organisations, Fifa is responsible for receiving and distributing incredibly large sums of money. The money it receives is predominantly sourced from large corporate “partners” or sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Adidas, Visa and Emirates Airlines to mention a few. Some of this money is then distributed as Fifa says on their website to “develop the game, touch the world and to build a better future”.
For years Fifa has been able to operate a sizeable business operation as a mini country without all of the pesky and irritating concerns like being held accountable by stakeholders for decisions they have made. Whenever allegations of impropriety have surfaced, Fifa has been able to claim that they have dealt with the problems “within the family”. The Fifa congress is made up of 208 national football associations, the majority of which are not wealthy and rely heavily on Fifa itself for their annual income. If Fifa were a publicly listed company, there would be numerous headlines about conflicts of interest between the distributors (Fifa themselves) and the receivers (national football associations) of funding. The heads of the country football associations are then expected to vote (impartially of course) for the next Fifa president.
There does appear to be some light at the end of the tunnel and change may (eventually) happen at Fifa . Money matters and the Fifa partners are getting more and more twitchy due to the negative publicity that has taken place over the past few weeks, and unfortunately for them the big corporates are held accountable by their own shareholders. The result could be that Fifa is forced into action……. eventually. The Swiss government, notorious for their secrecy and lack of media attention,are also being driven by public opinion and media attention to attempt to play a role in making Fifa more transparent.
The key to any proposed reforms within Fifa is that independence is paramount. The future individuals who may be called upon to serve on any ethics, internal audit or remuneration committees need to be independent of operational responsibilities. Only then can Fifa move forward from the Dark Ages where it currently sits.