At long last, Sepp Blatter is gone. With no obvious successor to the FIFA presidency capable of marshaling the international bloc of support that kept first João Havelange and then Blatter in power since 1974, international football faces a moment of crisis like no other. There are reasons for hope, certainly, now that Blatter has announced his resignation and serious reform is possible. But for those who value international football in its richest and most inclusive form, there are also reasons to be fearful.
There is no defense for Blatter, whose sudden exit after clinging to power all these years suggests he may soon be facing tougher scrutiny than the cotton-gloved internal investigations through which he typically claimed to hold himself and other FIFA officials accountable. But last week’s Federal Bureau of Investigation bust of nine FIFA officials and two corporate executives for racketeering, conspiracy and corruption was not just about Blatter. Rather, it pointed to a broad set of structural problems in FIFA and football confederations around the world. There is a lack of effective oversight of football administrators from the local to the global level. How this problem is addressed will be crucial in shaping football’s future as a global cultural practice.
Blatter certainly bears responsibility for overseeing a growing culture of cronyism. But his crimes went far beyond the bribes that led to his demise. If you think his departure from FIFA is the end of World Cups ripping off host countries and thousands of migrant workers dying in the construction of needless infrastructure, think again.
Many of the solutions being bandied about are ridiculous — privatizing the World Cup, abolishing FIFA’s one-nation, one-vote system, having Europe’s governing body, the UEFA, take the lead. American statistician and journalist Nate Silver even implied that a better FIFA would distribute influence according to GDP.
None of these solutions have much to do with the meat of the FBI’s findings, which mainly describe corrupt dealings between regional confederations and sports marketing companies acting as intermediaries for broadcasting and sportswear corporations. Instead, these so-called solutions favor an old-fashioned power grab, and such responses will permanently impoverish the world’s game if they succeed.
International football must not become just another plaything for rich nations and national elites. FIFA’s one-nation, one-vote system is one of the reasons powerful Western nations find it hard to get their way all of the time. It means the interests of smaller nations, where domestic funding for the game is often minimal, are taken seriously. But in reality, it doesn’t give Fiji as much sway in the politics of soccer as Germany, nor is it the reason for the corrupt practices that have brought the organization to its knees. One-nation, one-vote must be defended and perhaps supplemented by representation for other stakeholders such as fans, players and referees. Any FIFA that takes its global stewardship of the game seriously should adopt this as its bulwark.
To get a grip on what good governance of football would really look like, we should first answer two questions.
First, what is football for? The sport is a collective social good, a shared cultural practice that in its globalized form can knit people together across differences of language, gender, race and class.
Second, who does football belong to? It belongs to everyone who loves the game, from superstars Lionel Messi and Alexis Sánchez playing at the peak of the European club game down to an under-11s amateur team coach in the Comoros Islands or the Philippines. The post-Blatter dispensation needs to do more to represent the interests of all stakeholders in the game, not just the powerful few.
The UEFA’s track record clearly demonstrates its institutional tendency to protect elite interests at all costs, believing that this is the way to ensure commercial success. According to this vision, ordinary fans and grass-roots football count for very little. While the UEFA Champions League has boomed, even that competition cannot get close to the appeal of FIFA’s World Cup, which gives decent representation to nations from Africa, Asia and Oceania rather than toadying to the whims of traditional powerhouses. UEFA-led football would return the game to before 1974, when soccer was run by a small group of white European men who catered to their own interests. That, by the way, is also corruption.
Under Blatter, FIFA was run as a rapidly commercializing behemoth that understood football’s place in the world in truly global terms. The World Cup went to Asia for the first time in 2002 and to Africa in 2010. It became plausible to imagine holding the World Cup in the Middle East. (I will not defend Qatar’s bid, nor the appalling loss of life among workers that has followed its success — only the equal right of the Arab world to share in the global event.) Large sums of money were invested everywhere from Malta to Madagascar, from Nepal to Panama, to support the growth of soccer. That legacy should be cherished and protected, even as the corrupt practices that so marred Blatter’s tenure are stamped out.
The best future for FIFA would be one that retains its legacy of greater global equality, that returns the game to ordinary people, where the World Cup made good money to be invested at the grass roots but without sacrificing the soul of football to greed and vanity projects. The best successor to Blatter will be any candidate who can build a coalition around such a program.