Soccer’s governing body has headed to Brazil this week, hoping to shift the focus away from corruption claims and onto the 2014 World Cup. It won’t be easy.
FIFA decided July 23 to ban Asian soccer head Mohamed Bin Hammam for life for allegedly paying bribes to influence the group’s presidential election. Last month, the resignation of board member Jack Warner ended a probe into his involvement. That followed last year’s suspension of two FIFA officials in a cash-for-votes scandal linked to World Cup hosting decisions.
President Sepp Blatter was elected unopposed for a fourth term in June after Bin Hammam withdrew his candidacy. Blatter has pledged to clean up FIFA, which gets about $4 billion from the World Cup. Not everyone is convinced he can deliver.
“It’s always the same tune,” said Umberto Gandini, a board member of the European Club Association, which represents the region’s top professional soccer teams such as Barcelona and Manchester United. “We are not seeing any significant change in the governance and the policies.”
Gandini’s organization says FIFA too often acts alone, without giving adequate consideration to clubs’ interests, such as scheduling too many international matches. Blatter also has been criticized by England’s Football Association, which is smarting over the nation’s rejection as 2018 World Cup host, for what it says is poor governance and lack of transparency.
World Cup Draw
The focus shifts to soccer tomorrow when the qualification draw for the 2014 World Cup is held in Rio de Janeiro, starting the process to whittle down the field to 32 teams. FIFA executives will meet with sponsors who’ve paid millions of dollars to associate their companies with the tournament and politicians, including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.
Blatter has taken steps to try to reform Zurich-based FIFA. After his re-election, he moved to get future World Cup locations selected by all 208 FIFA nations, not just the 24 members of its board. The 75-year-old Swiss also proposed an advisory panel to include former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and opera singer Placido Domingo. Both said they might be willing to take part, although they’ve made no commitment.
FIFA has been dealing with the corruption allegations for most of the past year, with nine of its 24-member decision-making panel having been suspended or facing claims of impropriety.
Most allegations centered on bidding for the World Cup, the most-watched sporting event. Russia won the hosting rights for 2018, defeating campaigns from England, and joint efforts from Spain and Portugal and the Netherlands and Belgium. Qatar clinched the 2022 World Cup as Australia, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. were disappointed.
Bin Hammam, a 62-year-old Qatari, was accused in May of offering $40,000 in bribes to voters in his abortive bid to become FIFA president. He’s vowed to challenge his ban, declaring “this is only the battle, not the war.”
Blatter and Bin Hammam once worked together, and the Qatari helped secure Blatter’s first term in 1998.
“Without you, dear Mohamed, none of this would ever have been possible,” Blatter wrote to Bin Hammam to commemorate 10 years of his presidency in June 2008.
At a press conference in Rio de Janeiro two days ago he declined to say what he meant in that letter, or to comment on the life ban handed out to his one-time colleague.
World Cup sponsors, including Dubai-based airline Emirates, Visa Inc., Adidas AG and Coca-Cola Co., have voiced concerns about the controversies hanging over FIFA. Still, no sponsors have quit and the list of backers for Brazil 2014 is already complete, said Nigel Currie, director of London-based sports marketing agency brandRapport. The global reach of the event is too important to companies looking to promote themselves, he said.
“People are prepared to ignore the troubles and issues to get to what they really want, which is the World Cup,” he said.
The governing body’s board members say progress has been made. Chuck Blazer, an American on FIFA’s board whose complaint led to the probe into Bin Hammam and Warner, said the sanctions prove FIFA is serious about tackling impropriety.
“The code of ethics, and also an ethics committee, have now been able to function efficiently and function independently,” Blazer said in a telephone interview. “That wasn’t the case prior to that.”
Bin Hammam said his guilt had been decided weeks before FIFA heard the case, no matter what his defense would be.
“This is actually the act of the dictators,” the Qatari told Sky News. “When they think this or that person is a prominent one to replace him, first thing they do they execute him and try to fabricate any allegation against him.”
Blatter said he wasn’t a dictator and was instead consulting officials inside FIFA and the United Nations to consider new measures to promote good governance.
The crisis has touched soccer organizations across the globe. The governing bodies of Asia, and the North, Central American and Caribbean region, are looking for leaders, and Caribbean Football Union officials have been threatened with life bans unless they give information on the allegations that Bin Hammam handed out bribes to them in May.
“Obviously something is terribly wrong in the whole football arena, from the administration of football from FIFA right down,” said Lisle Austin, who briefly replaced Warner as head of the Concacaf region before being suspended after a dispute with Blazer, also the body’s general secretary. “I’m hoping that whatever decisions are made it could help clear it up.”
Whatever happens, Blatter has promised FIFA will be a different entity by the time the first ball is kicked in Brazil.
“We are doing a lot but give us time to go step by step,” he said in Rio.