Thursday, May 19, 2011

From the US National Team Players Association

That Pesky FIFA Vote

By J Hutcherson -- FIFA president Sepp Blatter didn’t exactly say what a few headlines have gone ahead and run with on Wednesday. With widespread coverage of a potential revote for the rights to host the 2022 World Cup, Blatter’s quote was decidedly noncommittal.

“Don't ask me yes or no, let us go step by step."

That’s hardly an invitation for bid resubmissions in the face of allegations of voter impropriety. As FIFA’s version of due process plays out, they’re simply asking for verifiable evidence that other members of their organization’s Executive Committee were involved in vote selling. It’s worth stressing that though these allegations are attached to a major British newspaper, they were never printed. Instead, they were made public during testimony before a Parliamentary committee where libel laws are suspended.

Should those allegations prove to be accurate, it’s an open question as to what a next step might look like. Historically, FIFA has made ethics about the individual rather than organizations. They removed members of the ExCom in the run-up to the World Cup vote, but left the bidding countries intact. Obviously, it’s a different scenario if evidence shows that a successful bidder was paying Executive Committee members. How that might play out isn’t as obvious.

It would be unfortunate to see the allegations against Qatar used to maneuver politically within the current election cycle. The timing is unfortunate, with the potential for serious ethical charges to be brought during the same FIFA Congress where a president is elected.

Part of the allegations levied in front of the British Parliament is that some of the people holding votes within FIFA are acting in their own personal interest rather than as representatives of the territories they represent. The ExCom is the elite of world soccer’s bureaucracy, and those accused include some of the biggest players in FIFA politics. Should the charges prove true, it would be naïve to think that behavior stops at the Executive Committee level.

What we’re left with is a FIFA presidential campaign that’s no longer about differing views of the future. It’s about the immediate past. Whether or not any of the English allegations hold, they’ve managed to push corruption to the top of the table in this election cycle. This isn’t exactly new for FIFA, but this time they might not have as much control as they like to think.

Britain’s Sports Minister has already indicated that it should be a European concern that FIFA is run with greater transparency than what we’ve seen over the last few years. Government interference remains the biggest threat to FIFA as an organization, thus their long-held negative response toward any individual government attempting to delve into soccer affairs. Faced with multiple governments and the European Union, it would be tough for that position to hold. The alternative is changing from within.

In an op-ed published by Italy’s biggest sports newspaper last week, Blatter has already indicated he believes he is the difference between FIFA continuing to grow and “irreversible damage.” Maybe, especially for those that believe the current system works in spite of itself. That might be the real meaning behind Blatter’s use of the phrase ‘black hole’ in describing a possible future for FIFA without his leadership.

That’s not exactly a cheery thought, at least suggesting that a FIFA left to its own devices might not be sustainable. Blatter has already said that if reelected this will be his last term. What changes in the next four years under his leadership to make the FIFA presidency transferable should be a very good question.

Blatter has done a remarkable job of strengthening the office of the FIFA president. Though he used the analogy of a house in his op-ed, that’s playing to the vanity of the Confederations. His opponent Mohamed Bin Hammam has stressed Blatter’s continual sublimation of the role of the Confederations and the Executive Committee in making important decisions. Both have a point. Unfortunately, both points are somewhat undone by the current corruption allegations.

For Blatter’s version of FIFA, overt corruption means an Executive Committee, and by extension an electorate, that can’t be trusted. For Bin Hammam, his version of the future puts more control in the hands of an Executive Committee that might contain additional members selling votes. As potential futures go, both are decidedly problematic.

This leaves FIFA is in a familiar position. The organization isn’t known for transparency, and considering Blatter’s previous presidencies that’s not likely to change under his leadership. Bin Hammam has pushed just that, but if elected he might be inheriting a broken Executive Committee with multiple members facing ethics charges. Bin Hammam might be the better choice in a ‘clear the bums out’ election overhaul, but it’s his country Qatar now having to publicly deny accusations of buying World Cup votes.

Again, for FIFA allegations of corruption and a basic lack of transparency aren't new problems, and once again there’s not a clear reform choice. One would hope that for the 208 presidential vote holders, this election becomes about the best alternative for salvaging a ridiculous situation before getting to work reforming their own association, Confederations, and with that the Executive Committee. That’s the only substantive reaction instead of simply continuing on with FIFA business as usual.

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