FIFA meeting begins with a bang as arrests put corruption top of the agenda

Preparing for scrutiny. Wednesday’s FIFA press conference gets ready to roll. Ennio Leanza/EPA

FIFA’s annual meetings are normally formulaic affairs where everything happens to plan: grand speeches are held, pats on the back are summarily dished out and, most importantly, Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, gets what he wants. This year’s annual congress, currently taking place in Zurich, looks like being altogether different.

Early on Wednesday morning several members of FIFA’s powerful executive committee were taken from their lodgings, the salubrious Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich, and arrested with a view to being extradited to the US on corruption charges. Blatter was not arrested, and is “not involved,” said a FIFA spokesman. According to US authorities, the charges range from racketeering to money laundering and appear to largely centre round the affairs of Concacaf – one of the six regional bodies that come together to govern the world game – and how their officials dealt with marketing rights, advertising contracts and media deals surrounding a number of Concacaf tournaments.

Intriguingly, the US indictment also mentioned the bidding process to host the 2010 World Cup. Swiss authorities have also seized electronic data and documents from FIFA’s head office in Zurich as part of a probe into suspected “criminal mismanagement and of money laundering in connection with the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 Football World Cups”.

House of Scandal

FIFA spokesman Walter de Gregorio has tried his best to see the positive in the drama of rich and powerful men being hauled from their beds and threatened with serious charges.

He told reporters:

This for FIFA is good. It is not good in terms of image or reputation, but in terms of cleaning up, this is good… It is not a nice day, but it is also a good day.

He also said that Blatter, although relaxed, “is not dancing in his office”.

In terms of FIFA, allegations of corrupt practices are clearly nothing new. Jack Warner, a long-time member of the FIFA executive committee and the principle mover and shaker in Concacaf (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) resigned in 2011 amid a number of corruption allegations (which he has vociferously denied). FIFA ceased internal investigations following his “self-determined” resignation. “The presumption of innocence is maintained”, a release from the organisation said. Meanwhile Warner himself referred to a witchhunt against him.

A blancmange, in repose. Peter Brown, CC BY-NC-ND

FIFA has done what many organisations facing fundamental corruption and governance challenges try to do: reform themselves without doing anything about the culture within which the new institutions are set. Defining, let alone changing, culture might well be described as akin to pinning blancmange to a wall. But awareness of the need to follow rules and regulations – and to be transparent about how decisions are made, how resources are allocated and how allegations of inappropriateness are going to be dealt with – are nothing but the basics.

In June 2011, FIFA launched a governance reform process. The notions of transparency and zero tolerance were, so it was announced, to be at the core of a new institutional framework. FIFA – coaxed and cajoled by the respected Swiss legal expert Mark Pieth – introduced a two-tier ethics committee to ensure that the actions of FIFA officials corresponded to the highest moral and ethical standards.

Blatter battered

FIFA’s inability to deal with the negative fall-out from the bidding processes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups laid bare how ineffective these processes were. Failed anti-corruption attempts are indeed littered with the corpses of impressive-looking oversight bodies and FIFA, it quickly became clear, was failing spectacularly.

FIFA didn’t trust independent thinkers enough to allow them to ask difficult questions, it didn’t feel secure enough to bring in genuinely transparent procedures. This is not the terrain for effectively tackling deep-rooted processes of corruption.

Qatar football fans fly the flag. Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, CC BY

Wednesday’s events in Switzerland may indeed prove to be a watershed moment. The sight of FIFA officials being arrested, and the prospect of more and more evidence about the culture that pervaded FIFA becoming apparent may well force the organisation to change.

As head of FIFA, Blatter has to recognise that the old ways of doing things are out-of-date and, indeed, wholly inappropriate. It is what he does that will be the defining feature of not just the rest of this FIFA annual meeting, but also how the organisation moves to tackle corruption.

Football is not now a game played by a few kids in back streets – it is an outsized, cut-throat global business and it needs to be regulated. As things stand, that isn’t happening. Only when transparency, accountability and a preparedness to allow genuine external oversight are the watch-words of all FIFA’s activities will sceptics really start to believe in the organisation again.