FIFA self-reform always doomed to fail

U.S. Attorney Kelly Currie says the fraudulent behavior in International soccer has been going on for two decades, and these charges today are just the beginning, as they seek to rid the global game from the corruption.

FIFA’s day of reckoning has been a long time coming. While actual indictments of FIFA officials are extremely rare, the whiff of something foul has followed world soccer’s governing body for years. Numerous officials with either FIFA or its member confederations have resigned, been suspended, booted out or otherwise penalized for corruption and/or bribery. In 2010 FIFA president Sepp Blatter himself admitted to knowledge of a 1m–Swiss franc bribe intended for former FIFA president Joao Havelange, but escaped legal penalty due to a technicality of Swiss law.

So has FIFA ever done anything to clean its own house? Well, sort of. In 2011 FIFA trumpeted its own efforts to purge itself of corruption, assembling an “Independent Governance Committee” of anti-corruption and anti-bribery experts and lawyers tasked with reviewing FIFA’s governance and structures and making recommendations aimed at increasing transparency and eliminating corruption at FIFA.

By 2013 that effort was falling apart, with FIFA entering its annual congress conspicuously ignoring vital sections of the recommendations they commissioned the IGC to make. (The IGC issued their final report, which included recommendations relating to corruption allegations over the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, last year.)

In April of 2012 Sportsnet spoke with two IGC officials about the crumbling reform process at FIFA, including Canadian Alexandra Wrage, an IGC member who had just publicly quit the IGC, frustrated at FIFA’s apparent lack of dedication to meaningful reform. Here are some key excerpts from those conversations, which speak to how such a public organization with such public criticism levelled at it could have gone on so long without reform.

(Wrage, it’s worth noting, made clear she was never paid by FIFA—”Not even my travel expenses,” she said.)

On the relationship between FIFA and IGC, the outfit FIFA hired to review their governance structure:

“What has been surprising to me is how adversarial it’s become. This was a process that FIFA started—this was their idea. They asked [IGC chairman] Mark Pieth to form the group and make these recommendations, and now we’re in this extraordinary situation of having to advocate for our own recommendations. I’ve never been in this situation before. I usually work with corporations where the board says ‘We’d like to have a review of our governance structures and our anti-bribery mechanism, and we’d like you to do a gap analysis of where the organization is today and where they need to be and what steps they need to take to get from there to here.’ It’s usually very collaborative, there’s often a healthy debate—’We can do this, we don’t have the resources for that, can we save this for a second stage?’ But I’ve never been in a situation where the very entity seeking the reform (at least nominally) says, ‘No, thank you,’ when the recommendations are made.”

On why FIFA dropped the anti-corruption recommendations, and how FIFA rejected recommendations on making transparent Executive Committee members’ compensation (several of the high-profile officials arrested today for bribery, racketeering, etc., are or have been Executive Committee members):

“That’s really the interesting part—there was no explanation. They just got dropped. I don’t know what other verb to use. They just disappeared from the agenda. So something really as fundamental as independent oversight on the Executive Committee, or transparency with respect to total compensation—I keep emphasizing ‘total’ because it needs to be salaries, bonuses, perks, everything, not just salaries—but we didn’t even get salaries, nothing.

“And it wasn’t as if they came back and said it wouldn’t be workable for this reason or, you know, ‘We’d like to table that until 2014’—[the recommendations] just didn’t make it onto the agenda. So there was no debate, there was no healthy back and forth. And that’s the part that’s been most surprising is that they requested this process, they initiated this process and now they are resisting or ignoring the improvements that they set in motion.

“It makes me question the seriousness of purpose at the outset if what I perceive as—what I know to be—very mainstream straightforward measures don’t make it as far as this. So there’s now way of to know whether they weren’t sincere at the outset or if they lost enthusiasm as time went on.”

At the same time Sportsnet spoke with Wrage, we reached out to Guillermo Jorge, an Argentine lawyer and member of the IGC. While Jorge remained with the IGC, he too was critical of FIFA’s anti-corruption efforts, citing FIFA’s fundamental structures and president Sepp Blatter—who at press time remained favourite to win FIFA’s presidential election this week—as particular obstacles to meaningful reform.

On the basic problem with FIFA, that the structure makes corruption easy:

“FIFA has a very basic accountability problem because it’s an association of 209 national associations. It’s like an African country with a resource course. They don’t get their money from taxes, so to speak, from contributions from the national associations, but absolutely the opposite. They get 90-something percent of their money from the World Cup and they distribute it top-down. This is a huge challenge for reforming, for bringing some transparency and democracy to an organization because it’s very difficult to create a demand from the bottom up.”

On whether Blatter is an obstacle to reform:

“Yes. The answer definitely is yes, from the standpoint that when you have fresh blood in an organization, usually you have new leadership [and] there is an impetus and a momentum to… convince the public that you have changed. This is very typical in multinational corporations when they are facing corruption challenges. This, of course, is very different. We are not naïve in the sense that we know where we are. It is also an opportunity to reform a bigger organization that needs to be reformed… The journey hasn’t been easy. There have been tensions between [Blatter] and the IGC since the beginning that were made public… I don’t work for Mr. Blatter… and sometimes the tension is basically that tension, that he believes that we are a committee of FIFA. Well that’s not the concept. We are an independent advisors.”

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