A Game of Two Halves: Can Soccer’s Governing Body FIFA Finally Clean Up Its Act?

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Where were we when we last discussed the soap opera that is soccer’s governing body (and veritable global behemoth), FIFA? Ah yes, President Sepp Blatter — who, given the power of his position and the popularity of the sport, is arguably as influential as the Pope — claimed he was going to clean up the sport for good if re-elected on June 1 while his challenger, Mohamed Bin Hammam, said much the same. ‘Twas ever thus.

In the interim, Lord Triesman, who ran England’s failed 2018 World Cup bid, has made some stunning allegations against several high-ranking FIFA officials at a parliamentary committee in London this week. Highlights? Triesman claimed that four FIFA members were after “bribes” in order to give England their vote. It’s certainly worth looking at them in brief to see what they allegedly wanted to give some wider context into what we’re dealing in here.

– FIFA vice-president Jack Warner asked for around $4m to build an education center in Trinidad, with the cash channeled through him, and later wanted $800,000 to purchase Haiti’s World Cup TV rights for the earthquake-hit nation, again funneled through him.

– Paraguay’s FIFA member Nicolas Leoz asked for an honorary knighthood (apparently he thought it would be “nice.”)

– Brazil’s FIFA member Ricardo Teixeira asked Triesman to “Come and tell me what you have got for me.” The implication being that he too was after something in return for his vote.

– Thailand’s FIFA member Worawi Makudi wanted to be given the TV rights to a friendly between England and the Thai national team.

Naturally, these allegations have all been refuted and it should also be pointed out that Triesman also claimed that the English Premier League’s chief executive Richard Scudamore offered to support the England 2018 World Cup bid in return for backing for his controversial ’39th Game’ proposal, a money-spinning boondoggle that would see English teams play one match a year in an overseas stadium.

But we can’t nor shouldn’t get away from the fact that the stamping out of supposed foul deeds within the inner sanctum of soccer should be dealt with in-house, rather than being grubbily played out at hearings held by the likes of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

What to do? For starters, a measure of transparency wouldn’t go amiss. FIFA’s 2010 revenue was roughly $1.3 billion and of the $794m spent on “development-related expenses” between 2007 and 2010, $137m was lavished on “other projects,” about which not much is known. Secondly, why not follow the IOC’s lead (speaking of sports organizations who were in need of cleaning house) and have the entire FIFA congress make a considered decision about who to award a World Cup to rather than allow the 24 (or, in the most recent cases due to two members being suspended by FIFA, 22) members to be potentially swayed. While two have been dealt with, allegations swirl about a further six, which is an incredibly high percentage.

Putting cynicism aside, at least FIFA is looking back in order to move forward: by holding an investigation into the shenanigans surrounding the six members accused of dirty dealings as regards the 2018 and 2022 bid process (both World Cups were awarded on the same day to Russia and Qatar respectively), action of a kind is being taken by Blatter. But what will come of it and is it only happening to help ensure his presidency is extended for a fourth (and final) time? Speed is of the essence for Blatter, as he’s keen “to deal with this matter before the congress and not just kick it out of the minds of FIFA and say we will deal with it afterwards. We must accelerate the movement whether it is for the good or for the bad.” (For his own part, challenger Hammam thinks FIFA is clean: “I will happily and unreservedly restate that I firmly believe FIFA, as a decision-making body and as an organization, isn’t corrupt.”)

Let’s at least allow some leeway in this respect as if those members are found guilty, they’d surely have no recourse, would be dismissed from their high-ranking positions and it would serve as a tacit admission from the sport’s governing body that not only were mistakes made but individuals within FIFA should surely be wary from committing similar crimes in the future.

A pipe dream? Perhaps. But there would be a final measure of irony if the one body who ended up forcing FIFA to change its ways was the European Union, oft-criticized for being feckless. They want to make the reform a “key priority” to tie in with Poland taking over the running of the E.U. Council from July. By then, Blatter will surely have been re-elected and made a whole slew of promises. If he were to keep them before his presidency finally expires for good in 2015, it could well be his greatest – and most surprising – achievement.