Voice from America

The Battle against FIFA: Combating Corruption or Combating Power Transition?

29 May, 2015    ·   4880

Prof Amit Gupta presents a comparative analysis of the ongoing FIFA controversy and the churning in the international political order 

Amit Gupta
Amit Gupta
Visiting Fellow
The current allegations of bribery and corruption against some executive members of the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) are important because both national and international sporting bodies have to be effectively policed to display transparency and good governance.  But there is also a subtext to this war against FIFA: it is the struggle for power between the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and the rest of the world that mirrors the ongoing power transition in the international system.

Corruption is not a new phenomenon in international sporting bodies given how allegations of cash based lobbying has been ongoing for decades in both the Olympic movement and in the award of the World Cup. Similarly, the International Cricket Council was pushed to adopt anti-corruption measures once it was revealed that match-fixing was rampant in international cricket games.  

National sporting bodies have been no better. They not only permit corruption—Italian soccer has a long history of bribing referees and fixing matches—but also engage in egregious violations of political and human rights.  The United States Olympic Committee rigged the vote in 1936 to ensure that the US participated in the Berlin Olympics (there were calls for a boycott and the decision to participate passed with a narrow vote of 58-56) while the Australian, English, and New Zealand cricket boards worked hard to retain apartheid South Africa in international cricket.  It took mass protests by students, church groups, and trade unions in England (1970) and Australia (1971-1972) to stop cricket tours by the Springboks. The respective cricket boards kept talking about not mixing sports with politics.

FIFA has long been accused of being opaque and arbitrary in its dealings and the US indictments, while over relatively small amounts by American standards (after all $150 million in bribes and money laundering pale in comparison to the billion dollar fines that US investment bankers have paid the Justice Department to obtain a get-out-of-jail-free card) will encourage other countries to investigate their national and regional football associations. But will it bring about meaningful changes in these institutions, particularly greater transparency in their operations?

Given how sports are tied to nationalism and corruption and the former acts as a catalyst for the latter, the answer is no.  

The prestige associated with hosting a World Cup or the Olympics will always tempt nations to use different illegal means to achieve their goals.  After all, despite four decades of measures and sanctions, doping continues in many sports. From a historical perspective, corruption in cricket did not begin with the match fixing scandals of the 1990s. It began with the 19th century British aristocracy betting on cricket games and paying professional cricketers to throw games. So one should not hold one’s breaths on substantive structural changes in the institutions of international sporting.  FIFA will survive and the world will view the organisation and its current president Sepp Blatter as victims of bullying by the lone superpower.  

This is because FIFA is one of the battlegrounds for the power transition struggle currently ongoing in the international system.  Just as China is building new international institutions such as the BRICS bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to create a parallel set of international economic institutions in which it is prominent, a move is afoot in the footballing world to reduce the dominance of the European nations.  Thus, Qatar has become the battleground between a traditional European-dominated footballing order and a new one being constructed by the rest of the world.  

The Europeans are not keen to play in Qatar because it would wreck their domestic schedules—the Qatar World Cup is to be played in December because of the extreme summers in that country (the fact that Nepalese workers have been dying in construction accidents in Qatar adds a convenient human rights rationale to UEFA’s protests).  FIFA and the Blatter presidency, however, are keen on giving a World Cup to the Arab world and Blatter’s overall game plan is to increase the number of non-Western slots at the World Cup finals—at the expense of European countries that are disproportionately represented. Cancelling the Qatar cup is the first step in re-establishing European control in the organisation, something that has been slipping away for the last four decades.

European over-representation in the World Cup was particularly glaring till the early 1970s when the Brazilian Joao Havelange took over the presidency of FIFA by promising Asians and Africans more slots at the finals. Under successive European presidents, FIFA had shut out the Asians and the Africans. In the 1966 World Cup, North Korea was the only country to represent Africa, Asia, and Oceania (famously beating Australia in a playoff game to reach the finals); in 1970, Morocco was the sole representative from Africa, and Israel represented the whole of Asia. This hardly made it a universal competition.

Blatter’s plan is to reduce European slots to get more Asian and African countries into the finals and this is a long term threat to European interests.  Thus, the battle being waged in the UN and the International Monetary Fund for greater non-Western representation is the same being waged in FIFA.  The smart money in this is on FIFA and Blatter (if he survives Friday’s vote for president) since he has the support of Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Furthermore, with the US indicting football representatives from Costa Rica and Uruguay, there is likely to be closing of ranks because the US will be seen to act as an enforcer for the Europeans.  

Therefore, the battle for FIFA is not just one of petty corruption (FIFA after all has the same market value as a medium sized US business) but also another battlefront in the ongoing power transition struggle in the international system.

Amit Gupta is an Associate Professor in the Department of International Security at the USAF Air War College and is currently writing a book on the globalization of sports and the rise of non-Western nations.  Views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the USAF or the Department of Defense (although he suspects both organizations are too busy with real world threats to have a position of global football).