FIFA Faces the Nuclear Option: World Cup Boycott
The fallout from the FIFA arrests has only just begun, with renewed calls from politicians and soccer officials for president Sepp Blatter to step down. That's unlikely: Blatter is expected to win re-election to a fifth term in Friday's vote, which will continue despite the organization's turmoil. But the calls from some previously silent voices are an encouraging sign that the rampant corruption in soccer's world governing body can no longer be ignored.
Yesterday, I asked whether sponsors would speak up against FIFA's widespread graft, which has resulted in a rigged World Cup bidding process and, by extension, thousands of migrant workers killed in constructing stadiums. Some have done so: Coca-Cola lamented that FIFA's "lengthy controversy has tarnished the mission and ideals of the FIFA World Cup," while Visa issued a strongly-worded statement suggesting it could pull its sponsorship if FIFA fails to reform:
As a sponsor, we expect FIFA to take swift and immediate steps to address these issues within its organization. This starts with rebuilding a culture with strong ethical practices in order to restore the reputation of the games for fans everywhere ...
Our sponsorship has always focused on supporting the teams, enabling a great fan experience, and inspiring communities to come together and celebrate the spirit of competition and personal achievement – and it is important that FIFA makes changes now, so that the focus remain on these going forward. Should FIFA fail to do so, we have informed them that we will reassess our sponsorship.
The wording here is important -- Visa takes care to separate the game of soccer and the World Cup tournament from FIFA itself, stressing that FIFA and soccer are not one and the same. This key distinction allows sponsors to continue supporting the sport while recognizing the issues of its governing body.
We can add broadcasters to the list of those who can and should speak out, as they have a specific interest in taking a stand against the association: The U.S. Justice Department's investigation concluded that corrupt officials were taking bribes from sports marketers in exchange for media rights, which were then sold downstream to broadcasters. It's in the media companies' best interest to denounce these practices in which they're heavily intertwined.
Another pleasant surprise: While in these situations politicians usually make empty calls condemning sports leagues they have little power to influence, this time we are seeing a practical strategy to combat to FIFA's hold on soccer. While U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron believes there's "a very, very strong case for a change of leadership," the BBC reports that the Labour party has suggested holding a rival tournament if the voting for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup host sites (Russia and Qatar, respectivelty) isn't reopened.
The greatest threat to FIFA, however, will likely come from within the sport. David Gill, the former chief executive of Manchester United who is set to become a FIFA vice president, said he will refuse the seat if Blatter is re-elected.
Michel Platini, president of the sport's European federation, or UEFA, has been the most outspoken soccer official calling for Blatter's ouster, and is mobilizing his constituents against the existing power structure. "Enough is enough. Too much is too much," he said. "In terms of our image it’s not good at all. I am the first one to be disgusted by this. I am saying this with sadness, with tears in my eyes. There have been too many scandals that have shaken the world of football." According to Platini, most of UEFA's 54 members have agreed to back Blatter's challenger, Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein of Jordan.
Platini has also suggested that his member nations could boycott the upcoming World Cup tournaments if Blatter remains in power. It would be a hugely significant move, but would need the support of some of FIFA's other continental confederations. That's where internal geographic divides will come into play; Blatter enjoys wide support from developing nations in Africa, Asia and South America, and also from his old pal, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who gets to play host in 2018. Blatter has courted this support by adeptly denouncing his mostly Western critics as soccer imperialists, capitalizing on the resentment of the Eurocentric soccer landscape. And in FIFA's upcoming election, every tiny developing nation has as much voting power as world-champion Germany.
Platini's idea is an extreme longshot. But it deserves consideration: the threat of World Cup boycott may be the best step toward reforming an organization that continues to think of itself as untouchable.
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