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FRSA David Goldblatt argues that England’s world cup bid humiliation should spur the football community, public and press to push for greater scrutiny and radical reform of FIFA.

There is nothing like catastrophic defeat for forcing elites to think radically. English Football was politically humiliated in the contest to host the 2018 World Cup. Despite possessing by far the best technical bid and most compelling commercial case, England received just two votes from the 22 members of FIFA executive committee and was eliminated from the first round of a process that culminated in Russia getting the tournament. The sense that this was not a contest won on the strength of such arguments was reinforced by Qatar being awarded the 2022 World Cup ahead of the US, Australia, South Korea and Japan.

 The response of all of the losers has been a mixture of outrage, pique, Exasperation and, even in this most conservative of worlds, calls for reform. The Chief Executive of the England bid Andy Anson has argued for the widening of the electorate to the entire 208 nation membership of FIFA rather than the tiny executive committee.

 On the one hand, given the way in which the English football establishment and British politicians, have prostrated themselves before FIFA and given their denunciations and denials of the investigative work done by the Sunday Times and the ‘Panorama’ programme on corruption in the institution, it all rings a little hollow. On the other hand, better late than never: to have the football and political elites of a small number of nations alerted to the disastrous state of governance in global football is a major advance and a basic precondition of change.

FIFA has lived a charmed political life in a never-never land of its own-making where, despite its growing wealth and power, it is not subject to the same norms of external and independent scrutiny, democratic governance and legal probity as other  international institutions. This position is no longer defensible or sustainable, in fact it is embarrassing. Even the usually shameless Swiss government has made a start. As a non-commercial organization under Swiss law no one hitherto at FIFA could be prosecuted for bribery. This will now change.

 If indeed there is any real appetite for radical thinking and radical change in the governance of global football what should reformers do? First, theyshould be intellectually bold. Reform of FIFA is not just about the bid process for world cups; indeed, this is something of a sideshow. Centrally it’s about the re-establishing the legal and moral authority of the organization: the former is murky and the latter has collapsed. Reform should articulate the case for football as the common property of humanity, held in trust by FIFA. Where that trust has been undermined or broken, as it manifestly has, the global polity – both states and societies – has a stake in re-establishing it. Where the collective property of humanity is at stake, processes of governance must be open, democratic and accountable.

Second, there is a useful precedent for reform which can be built on.  In the wake of unquestionable evidence that the organisers of the Salt Lake City bid for the 2002 winter games had bribed members of the IOC to win their votes, the organisation underwent considerable change. The bidding process itself has been tightened up, external scrutiny has been introduced and the worst offenders in the graft game have been fired. Crucially age and term limits have been placed on IOC membership to prevent the creation of an entrenched and unassailable oligarchy.

FIFA has publically rebuffed the idea that the bidding process is in need of reform. They did suspend two members of their executive committee exposed by the Sunday Times as soliciting money for influence, but the rest of the brotherhood look safe. Above all there is there is no sign of any structural reform that would make the institutions finances and decision making transparent, expose its workings to external scrutiny or break up the entrenched systems of patronage and power within it.

 The real problem of course, is how to make these changes happen. Alex Fergusson caustically summarised the dilemma facing reformers: “That's a new one for FIFA - democracy! … How can you change it? Is that 22-man committee going to change if you ask them? Give me a break.”  Next May, FIFA is poised to re-elect Sepp Blatter unopposed, for his fourth term as FIFA President. Nothing is more emblematic of the rotten state of affairs in FIFA, and given the entirely closed and unaccountable political constitution of global football nothing can be done to stop it.

 The disparate alliance of political and football elite, press and public should take the opportunity to speak, protest and have fun. It would be best if a serious candidate stepped up to challenge Blatter, but failing that any number of shadow candidacies and stalking horses could enter the public arena.  The press should take the opportunity to scrutinise Blatter, his allies and his record with the seriousness and incredulity they deserve.  Above all we should laugh, that a group of such tarnished and transparently self-serving middle aged men might think that they have the moral authority to treat the most public of passions as if it were the property of private club. <hr>

David Goldblatt is a writer and broadcaster and author of The Ball is Round: a global history of football.


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