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

This guestie comes from Birmingham University’s Paul Jackson and Heather Marquettemarquette-heather-01 jackson-paul

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)

Sepp jumps the shark
Sepp jumps the shark

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.

The methods Blatter used to hang onto power – and the reasons for his success – come tried and tested by leaders such

Football as geopolitics
Football as geopolitics

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.

That's the easy bit
That’s the easy bit

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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13 Responses to “Reforming FIFA: what can we learn from experience with (other) corrupt autocrats?”
    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Kelly, The Thinking and Working Politically network are meeting in Bangkok next week and the main thematic focus is gender – hope this will be raised there!

  1. Heather Marquette

    Kelly, there’s a great photo org chart I saw in one of the news stories, which had head shots of FIFA’s upper echelon with ‘convicted, charged’ etc on each one, and my first thought was about how there’s no women there. Pretty much all rich, old men in suits. Would it be cleaner if there were any women? I don’t know, but certainly it would be much harder for a woman to work her way into that sort of corrupt network. It would also be hard for a woman to reform from within, to ‘go with the grain’, because she’d never get an equal seat at the bar where all the deals are made. Having gender at the heart of the next Thinking & Working Politically Community of Practice meeting is so exciting, and I hope these sorts of issues are discussed.

  2. juan

    Isn’t Blatter the king of TWP? He understood that many African and Asia countries have little faith in global institutions (UN, IMF, WB etc) because they don’t get fair influence or benefit.

    Blatter gave both influence and benefit – the benefit was through corruption and must change. The influence, through ‘one person, one vote’ & by working as blocks of votes is surely great TWP – what can African & Asia countries learn from their collective power in FIFA to encourage a fairer involvement in other global institutions?

    • Paul Jackson

      Hmm, good point Juan. I think this is a key issue to move FIFA forwards. Blatter and his ilk could not exist in the way that they do if there had been more power and income sharing earlier. This raises interesting questions about the internal inequalities within the game and how you can get access to the vast resources that exist. Blatter understood this and gave a selected new set of elites a share in return for control. Shutting out the earlier controlling elites of Europe, he was able to buy off elites in other parts of the world (and also in Europe) whilst also spreading the game. This would mean that we can’t go back to the old imperial model but was also con’t stick with this one!


  3. Martin Hall

    Brilliant blog. Brookings’ recent take on gender/FIFA worth a read too:

    With delicious irony… in the same week Blatter exited stage left, FC United of Manchester welcomed European giants Benfica to Broadhurst Park. More info here: Brilliant case study of How Change Happens – Shocks (Glazer takeover), Active Citizenship (Independent Manchester United Supporters Association, Shareholders United etc), challenging vested interests (MUFC commercialism, Sky TV), and working with unusual partners (including local Am Dram groups and musicians)… but that would be a whole other blog in itself!

  4. Heather Marquette

    Martin, another good blog on FIFA from a colleague of mine and Paul’s on how they actually got something very right in terms of politics and football in Bosnia – I reckon that book could have some really excellent stories!

    Juan, you’re absolutely right. Blatter provides a masterclass on TWP, but it is (or became?) TWP without principles. Some of the stories I’ve heard about in the TWP aid world sometimes cut a bit close for my taste in terms of ends justifying the means (or even just falling a bit too much in love with the means). But your point is a different one – that countries, or even groups of countries, can read this as a lesson on how to force richer countries to share wealth and power. But the second lesson is how citizens can best encourage leaders to use that power and those resources for the greater good, rather than just mimicking the oligarchs in the end. Duncan will give us all the answers for that, though…

  5. Ian sully

    Good blog. I think it misses the question of what does fifa show us about the short comings of one nation one vote. Also how can you reform “democratic” global institutions if enough people are kept at the trough?

  6. Matthew Cummins

    Ethical arguments aside, sometimes greasing the wheels is the most effective way to get things done the right way or the equitable way => Machiavelli => benevolent dictatorship.

    It’s important to consider the counterfactual: Would we have witnessed recent World Cups in Africa/Asia or the volume of investments in infrastructure/youth leagues across developing countries if a stronger governance structure were in place?

    • Heather Marquette

      Hi Matthew, There’s no reason why a stronger governance structure shouldn’t be able to deliver all of those things, but there’s also no reason to suggest just getting the rules right will lead to good outcomes overall. Doing typical anti-corruption stuff – prosecuting the ‘big fish’, bringing in codes of conduct, doing some sort of ethics training and so on – in a way that ignores the politics and the history just won’t work, any better than it works in development programming. Right now the things you talk about are delivered in many ways through systems of patronage, so what reformers will need to do is figure out how best to deliver those things through uncorrupt means, and really the only way to do that is to make the whole system fairer. Nowhere near as easy to tick off a log frame as running a mandatory ethics course, mind, which is why the growing focus in TWP/DDD worlds on new M&E approaches are so important.
      I personally think there’s nowhere near enough discussion of ethics in TWP discussions or papers, and the FIFA scandal is a great examples of that. Sure, the system worked in delivering X goods over a period of time, but the legacy is 40 years of mess, including contributing to corruption and distortion of budgets at national levels, and in some countries, people have any enough. The protests in Brazil were a great example of that, where people took to the street to protest against FIFA itself. If politics truly has ‘no relation to morals’, and Machiavelli is our new guide, I reckon we may be in trouble…

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