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Cleaning up Fifa

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Four days after being re-elected president of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (Fifa), 79-year-old Sepp Blatter announced his resignation.

“It is my deep care for Fifa and its interests, which I hold very dear, that has led me to take this decision,” Blatter said at the press conference where he made his announcement without taking any questions from journalists.

This selfless claim, however, hardly fits with Blatter’s actions and attitude over his 17-year-reign as head of Fifa. Amidst more than a decade of allegations about corruption in the world’s umbrella football organisation, Blatter held on like a barnacle to his post, never acknowledging that he bore any responsibility for Fifa’s ongoing scandals and paying lip service only to serious reform. 

Moreover, he continued to conduct himself in the manner of an opulent potentate, as revealed by investigative reporter Andrew Jennings, always hiring private jets for his shortest trips and paying himself a secret six-figure bonus.

Yet something happened after Blatter’s 133 to 73 victory last Friday to make him step down. Speculation abounds, but the three most likely reasons are: (1) Blatter will be joining his 14 Fifa colleagues who have been indicted by the United States authorities; (2) sponsors threatened to withdraw their money if Blatter continued at the helm of Fifa; (3) the threat of a parallel football body and tournament formed by the Union of European Football Associations (Uefa).

None of these excludes the other, but the main point is that Blatter’s resignation does give Fifa a clean slate from which to begin reforms. And whoever steps in as the body’s new president needs to understand that such reforms must be rigorous and must be seen to be rigorous. Fortunately, the new leadership need not start from scratch. 

As Mr Jennings, whose 2006 book Foul! marked the start of Fifa’s fall, noted in an interview with the Washington Post following the arrests, he was able to expose Fifa’s corruption by cultivating sources within the association.

“You know that everywhere, any organisation, if there is any sign at all of how corrupt the people at the top are, there’s decent people down in the middle management, because they’ve got mortgages, they’ve got children to put through school,” Jennings said. 

“They are just employees, and they will have a sense of proper morality. So you’ve got to get them to slip you the stuff out the back door.”

So Fifa’s rebuilding can begin on the backs of these employees who, unlike the head honchos such as Blatter and our own Jack Warner, do not have serious questions to answer. 

The corruption that marred football over the past decades was possible only because Fifa was not run with proper accountability. Reforming those internal systems to ensure proper checks and balances will not pose any great technical difficulty—the challenge, as always, will be in getting the people in charge to circumscribe their own powers.

At this juncture, however, they may have no choice. Companies like Coca-Cola, Visa, Hyundai-Kia, Sony and other major corporations are no longer willing to have their valuable brands tarnished by association with a tainted Fifa. So, if money was the cause of corruption in the association, money can also ensure its integrity.

This is how the world works. And the fact that Fifa is being held strictly to account is what the global game, and global fans, deserve. 


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