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Reforming FIFA: what can we learn from experience with (other) corrupt autocrats?

11 June 2015

Guest post for From Poverty to Power.

Acres (how many football pitches-worth, we wonder) have been written about the footballing earthquake that followed the arrest of several FIFA officials and the melodramatic end of Sepp Blatter’s reign.

But here’s another angle. In the world of development politics there are striking parallels between Blatter’s leadership of FIFA since 1998 and the modus operandi of the average deranged autocrat. Blatter’s style has had more in common with that of fellow pensioner Robert Mugabe than what might be expected of the manager of an international not-for-profit organisation.

Like Mugabe, Blatter has laid down a rich vein of bizarre quotes. Either of them could have said ‘I am a mountain goat that keeps going and going and going, I cannot be stopped, I just keep going’ or ‘Only God, who appointed me, will remove me.’ Thus far, at least, only one of them has been proved wrong on that point. (Blatter pronounced the first, Mugabe the second, btw)

Man holding a piece of paper saying Qatar

The serious question Blatter’s demise raises is this: the task for soccer fans among Thinking and Working Politically/ Doing Development Differently communities is to identify what TWP can tell us about how things ever got this bad in FIFA; how Blatter was even able to do what he did; and what are the likely paths to lasting reform?

It’s too easy to dismiss Blatter as a crazy dictator from central casting, just as many commentators have with Mugabe. The fact is that the roots of corruption and the type of creature Blatter represents are part of a broader, far more sophisticated system. FIFA may not be a developing nation, but international football has its own complex political economy. As with development programming, any chance of tackling the corruption at FIFA’s heart will demand a lot of ‘thinking and working politically’.

The parallels are profound. Blatter has behaved like any corrupt ruler controlling a post-colonial developing country. When he took charge in 1998, FIFA was still struggling to emerge from the patronising, disempowering and discriminatory rule of football’s European ‘oligarchs’, who had held sway right up until the 1970s. International football also had highly desirable resources – not oil or minerals, of course, but global media ‘reach’ that promised similarly huge potential revenues from sponsorship and advertising.

People in seats

The methods Blatter used to hang onto power – and the reasons for his success – come tried and tested by leaders such as Mugabe. Cheap vote-buying; the building and rewarding of a selfish elite whose privilege depends on his power; lots of cash to distribute to those willing to support him. Blatter has been able to do what he’s done for the identical reasons that we’ve seen and still see in certain countries: huge inequality.

As with poor democracies, the quasi-democracy of FIFA, based on one country-one vote, has provided enormous scope for cheap vote-buying. This is deeply rooted in the history of FIFA itself and a power structure developed by richer, elite footballing nations. With Europe’s oligarchs out of the way, Blatter – like every populist leader in a post-colonial context – sought to create his own constituency. Blessed with a massive influx of ‘unearned income’ from TV and other sources, he cemented his power base by sidelining the old elite and spreading the newfound wealth to football federations in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and South and Central America.

Through the lens of political analysis, we can see that corruption is a core element in FIFA’s patron-client relationship. On the face of it, FIFA’s control of its realm’s ‘resources’ pays for better stadia, training facilities for youth teams and better football strips in countries that would never be able to access these funds otherwise. However, this is a patron-client relationship that has provided support for Blatter in return for money for often poor federations – but only if FIFA’s inner circle were allowed to keep some too. This reciprocity is at the heart of corrupt networks, and it binds everyone together.

Man in front of sign reading "Let's kick racism out of football"

If we compare FIFA’s model with UEFA or the UK’s Premier League, we can see that here the oligarchs are back in charge. Both of these (relatively) ‘cleaner’ models are wealthy, enjoy full stadia and lots of revenue, but essentially employ the same group of mercenary players transferring between each other. They exclude the overwhelming majority of clubs and have ultimately created a Champions League where only five super-wealthy clubs can ever win. Increasingly, they’re destroying the grassroots of football and also ignoring the fans – the lifeblood of the game.

So, as we move past dwelling on what went wrong, we have to ask what will change – and how. In development, we tend to think that governance people are good at ‘thinking and working politically’, but we’re wrong. Anti-corruption programmes are typically awful at thinking and working politically, and there’s a desperate need to begin to do things differently.

For example, a TWP approach here would tell you that:

  • Like Mugabe, Blatter didn’t hang onto power so long just because he bungs money at his elite circle. He also created deep patron-client relationships that kept enough of the little guys happy, and it’s hard to see where the collective action needed to bring about reform is likely to come from in these circumstances.
  • Neither Blatter’s nor Mugabe’s success can be explained simply by ‘greed’ or ‘culture’. It depends on deeply unequal systems that exclude non-elites from accessing power and resources.
  • This means that the removal of Blatter and his inner circle may go either way; oligarchs and exclusivity are just as likely to take their place as something inclusive and clean. Look at the nations lining up to host the World Cup if the FBI’s investigations take the competition away from corrupt bidders. All the same old elites, with all their fancy existing infrastructure. No one else stands a chance.

A more politically informed understanding tells us that for any transformational change to happen, FIFA needs to do more than chop off its own head. It needs to tackle the inequality that led to this corrupt system in the first place. To really clean up FIFA, richer, elite footballing nations need to give power and resources to the poorer, weaker member federations. Even if it means hosting future World Cups at inconvenient times of the year.

Sorry, was that a pig (sponsored by Mastercard) just flying past…?

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