Illustration by Şerifcan Özcan
Illustration by Şerifcan Özcan

Barcelona’s victory over Manchester United in this year’s Champions League final will go down as one of the finest displays of soccer that the modern era has witnessed. But, for a performance of true audacity, for a story that captures the essence of contemporary soccer, the Catalans have been eclipsed by the games being played inside FIFA -- the sports global governing body -- and above all by Sepp Blatter, who was just re-elected as FIFA’s president.

Blatter, incumbent for 13 years, has been playing at the top of his form. In the past six months 10 members of FIFA’s 24-member executive committee have been accused of selling their votes in connection with the bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The Qataris who bid successfully for the 2022 tournament have been accused of buying some of them. Blatter’s and the institution’s legitimacy look very frail. If the president didn’t know what had been going on, he shouldn’t have been running the show, and if he did know, well, the same goes.

In this context, Mohamed Bin Hammam, the Qatari vice-president of FIFA, challenged Blatter for the presidency. On the eve of the vote, however, Bin Hammam and Jack Warner, another vice-president, were accused by Chuck Blazer, secretary of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football and a long-time ally of Blatter’s, of soliciting votes from Caribbean soccer associations in return for cash.

The accused were suspended by FIFA’s ethics committee, and Bin Hammam withdrew from the race, leaving Blatter the only candidate. A late attempt to postpone the vote, led by the English Football Association, was defeated at the congress in Zurich, by 172 votes to 17. Blatter was then re-elected with 186 votes out of a possible 208. Game over?

‘Something Marvelous’

As Blatter said in his victory speech, “Something marvelous has happened.” Inconceivable would have been a better word -- inconceivable, that is, in any realm but world soccer. Imagine, for a moment, that FIFA were a publicly traded company or a government department or a prominent national charity.

Imagine that one-third of its board had been subject to these kinds of allegations: Would it be acceptable for the boss to be blithely re-elected or reconfirmed in his post? Would it be possible to keep the matter out of the courts or away from the police? Could any elite in even the most minimally democratic polity shrug off so much scandal, strife and dubious behavior?

Global Soccer

Soccer’s leaders survive in part because until very recently, the world has lived under the illusion that soccer is not a matter for politics and thus for serious public debate. They are wrong. No practice is more global than soccer. In an interdependent but deeply divided world, any source of common culture is precious. The World Cup remains one of the few occasions during which humanity can be an imagined community.

FIFA holds this in trust for the rest of us. In the latest decade it has wrapped itself in the mantle of soccer as redeemer, unifier and cosmopolitan meeting ground. Given the organization’s privileged position, responsibilities  and recent pretensions, it seems inconceivable that it should be run on anything but the most open, transparent and democratic lines.

This argument applies not just to international sports federations, but to the huge array of nongovernmental organizations that make up such a significant part of the emerging system of global governance. If we can’t manage this with soccer, what chance is there of reforming the increasingly powerful economic and political institutions that shape the planet?

Flourishing Malpractice

Blatter can take some credit for his own miraculous escape, but FIFA has been designed to allow such tangible malpractice to flourish. The organization is legally constituted as the equivalent of a village angling society in Zug, Switzerland. The Swiss criminal code on embezzlement and corruption doesn’t apply, the organization pays almost no taxes and FIFA’s obligations to disclose its accounts and workings are pitiable.

The FIFA congress is made up of 208 national football associations. With few exceptions these groups aren’t closely regulated by their own governments or scrutinized by civil society or the media, and they are prey to the hidden politics of patronage. Members of the world sports press, who know much of what really goes on, have been for decades remarkably supine. Voting at the congress and in the executive committee is secret, so there is almost no way to hold any FIFA leaders accountable for anything that they do. While some national soccer organizations, such as those in England and Germany, are wealthy, the vast majority are impoverished and rely almost exclusively on FIFA for their income. This is not a system that encourages criticism, let alone dissent.

Fed-Up Swiss

Blatter may be looking at another four years in power, but there is hope that the days of secrecy and corruption may be numbered. If nothing else this congress has forced the politics of FIFA out into the open. The Swiss government, finally fed up with FIFA’s behavior, will continue to press it to reform and is threatening to expel it. Some of the biggest sponsors of the World Cup -- The Coca-Cola Co., Adidas AG and the Emirates Airline -- have publicly announced their dismay. Sports ministers and parliaments in countries such as England and Australia are beginning to take FIFA to task. And on the world’s social media networks, a storm of protest is gathering.

Will these forces cohere for reform -- or will they settle for the whitewash that Blatter is offering in lieu of real change? The former is eminently possible. Out of the recent scandal a clear reformist agenda has emerged. FIFA needs to be legally reconstituted. Its accounts, internal processes and voting system all need to be made entirely transparent and public.

Vetting Process

Newly hired officers at FIFA should be required to undergo a vetting process as rigorous as any faced by senior politicians and civil servants in democratic states, so that conflicts of interest are disclosed. A two-term limit should be placed on all senior posts, to prevent the creation of immovable networks of power and patronage.

FIFA should insist on similar reforms in all its member soccer associations, on pain of suspension. And it should create a regulatory system that is independent and politically plausible; problems can no longer be sorted out “inside the family.”

The family, of course, is the problem. This generation of soccer leaders, unaccustomed to real scrutiny of any kind, shaped by an era of autocracy, hyper-commercialization and secrecy, won’t want to make changes. Consequently, the game isn’t over. In fact it has only just begun.

(David Goldblatt is the author of “The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this column: David Goldblatt at davidsgoldblatt@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net