Wednesday, May 27 could go down as the day that FIFA (the International Federation of Association Football), the much-maligned governing body of world football, finally woke up and smelled the coffee. FIFA has long been plagued by allegations of corrupt practices, but the arrest of a number of current and former high-ranking officials and the list of charges levied against them surprised just about everyone (see here for more on this). With criminal proceedings also being opened in Switzerland over practices surrounding the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups (to Russia and Qatar, respectively) and U.S. authorities using language previously reserved for hunting down Mafia dons and bosses of the criminal underworld (see here), FIFA – and with it world football – is clearly in serious trouble.
What happens from here? In terms of the criminal investigations, U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch made it clear that they had only just begun. The specter of more arrests looms large, and even Sepp Blatter, the longtime president of FIFA who is standing for re-election on Friday, may well come under the investigatory microscope. FIFA spokesman Walter de Gregorio tried to put a brave face on things by claiming that FIFA “welcomed the actions” and that they can “contribute to rooting out any wrongdoing in football” but in the cold light of day the process is now well and truly out of FIFA’s control.
In a broader sense, FIFA will have to think about how it governs itself and how it avoids such catastrophes in future. In 2013 I conducted research that attempted to look at which specific types of anti-corruption strategy work in which conditions (see here). As is to be expected, there is clearly not a succinct set of answers to this question that cover every organization and/or every contextual setting. There, are, however, a number of principles that form the cornerstones of a successful anti-corruption strategy. And, over the years FIFA has managed to fail to implement all of them.
First, if you want to know how to solve a problem, then you have to accurately diagnose the causes of it. You have to look at how decisions are made, resources are allocated, and how accountability procedures work. Successful anti-corruption strategies therefore have to be able to get to the cause of the problem and not merely the outputs that are produced. They embrace transparency. FIFA’s leaders have traditionally remained unwilling to reveal how decisions are taken and to explain how discretionary power is wielded. Indeed, their methods have been labelled both “byzantine and impenetrable” (see here). Under these circumstances institutional reforms are always likely to, and in the case of FIFA have (see here), fail. Institutions, in other words, might change but the underlying culture of the organisation often does not.
Second, there is always a leadership dimension to tackling corruption. Without ‘buy in’ from prominent stakeholders top-down attempts to cleanse an organization are destined not just to fail but to fail badly. The case of FIFA is one of plentiful anti-corruption talk and disappointingly little anti-corruption substance. Sepp Blatter has remained president throughout this period, but never has he really given the impression that when push came to shove he was prepared to take the hard decisions necessary to root out corrupt practices.
Third, when corruption allegations surface they have to be both taken seriously and transparently investigated. Investigators need to be experienced, independent, and competent. They must have genuine expertise in the area and be able to uncover all of the information that they deem necessary to come to rounded conclusions. And the investigator needs to be able to publish the findings – warts and all. The only way that such a report can influence current and future conduct is if it calls things as they are, no matter how uncomfortable that may be for present members of the organization involved.
FIFA falls down miserably in this regard. It didn’t really matter whether this involved the high profile awarding of the highly prestigious FIFA World Cup to Russia and Qatar in 2018 and 2022, or in investigating the allegedly dubious affairs of previous FIFA executive committee members such as the former head of Concacaf, Jack Warner. Indeed, Michael Garcia, the author of a 350-page report that was supposed to clear up the Russia and Qatar sagas, was not even allowed to publish his findings and he subsequently went on to claim that FIFA’s summary of his report included “numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts” (see here). In the case of Warner, on the other hand, there remained a “presumption of innocence” as the case was speedily closed (see here). When you claim that you want to tackle corruption, you have to demonstrate the will to do so. You have to take a deep breath and expect to reveal uncomfortable truths. FIFA’s attempts to clean up its own house displayed none of the above.
The events of May 27 could well be pivotal in prompting FIFA to finally recognize its previous failings and to introducing more transparency and accountability into its internal affairs. It is not that big organizations cannot change. In recent years we’ve seen some do precisely that. Siemens, the German multinational, was mired in corruption controversy for a number of years (ultimately paying fines of around €2.5 billion), but it has since reformed itself impressively. But the process that underpinned that change hurt. Siemens’s leadership at that time was removed (in disgrace) and the company developed a whole new compliance system to ensure that the corruption would not resurface.
The key thing in that case – and indeed in the vast majority of cases where organizations distance themselves from their problematic pasts – is that the law was bearing down on them. For a long time that simply wasn’t the case with FIFA. It certainly is now. FIFA subsequently has the chance to embrace the cornerstones outlined above and to open up and explain what was happening. It also has to face the consequences that will come with that. In reality it may well have little choice in the matter – and that ultimately is no bad thing.