What FIFA Has To Do with Public Justice

For years, talk of bribery, corruption, and shady dealings has surrounded soccer’s global governing body, FIFA. As the saying goes, where there is smoke, there is probably fire. In the case of FIFA though, a more appropriate illustration might be billows rising over a few men holding a bed sheet in front of a brushfire.

Despite its almost laughably embarrassing reputation, no entity has ever taken concrete action against FIFA, mostly because there are few entities with enough power and motivation to do so. FIFA’s power lies in that it owns and operates the World Cup, the world’s largest, most popular, and most profitable sporting event. By awarding the hosting rights and having control over the broadcast rights and corporate sponsorships associated with the Cup, FIFA is an organization that seems too powerful to fail.

The man that has been orchestrating this spectacle is the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter. As the head of FIFA for the last 17 years, Blatter has overseen the growth of the organization into the international behemoth that it is today, becoming a notorious figure in the process. Accused of corruption and criticized for his blatant sexism and cronyism among other things, Blatter is a controversial figure to say the least. As Brian Phillips from Grantland has bluntly written, “as far as world soccer is concerned, he’s the weather.The most you can do is hope to wait him out.”

Yet despite being linked to many of the rumors of corruption behind the scenes at FIFA, Blatter has managed to stay comfortably in power. The body of global Football Associations elects the president of FIFA the year after the Men’s World Cup and in that election, each member FA gets one vote. So the vote of the reigning World Cup winners, Germany, counts just as much as the smallest member of FIFA, Montserrat. While a detested figure in Europe and North America, Blatter remains a highly popular and supported figure in the Asian, African, and Caribbean soccer worlds. Blatter and his regime have been able to maintain a comfortable hold on power by gaining the support of these smaller members who, for a number of reasons, are more likely to be persuaded to put their support behind questionable leadership.

However, the days of FIFA’s unchecked power look to be in danger as U.S. and Swiss authorities recently indicted nine top FIFA officials and five corporate executives on charges of racketeering, conspiracy, and corruption. The 47-count indictment “alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” according to a statement by U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch. “It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.”

A few days after these indictments, Blatter went on to win reelection for yet another term as president, which led to questions about how much impact the indictments would actually have on FIFA. Yet just four days after his reelection, Blatter announced he will resign from his post, staying on until a new president can be elected. This drastic change in posture signals that the walls of FIFA might actually be crumbling in. Although in recent days Blatter has hinted at recanting on his resignation, it seems the current FIFA regime have finally met their match.

Why is FIFA a Concern of Public Justice?

FIFA is a concern of public justice, because its reach is not only unmatched in its breadth across the globe, but also its depth. The awarding of the World Cup to countries has massive political, social, and economic ramifications involving both public and private sectors. Recent reports only seem to confirm what has been rumored for years, that corruption and bribery have been the key factor in how FIFA has awarded World Cups, which explains otherwise inexplicable decisions, the crowning example being the awarding of the 2022 edition to Qatar.

FIFA is an organization that seems too powerful to fail.

The awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar is not only problematic for the sport due to the long list of logistical challenges, but is simply a matter of life or death for many people. Due to Qatar’s tiny population, there are not enough laborers to build the massive infrastructure needed to host the event. So, Qatar brings in migrant workers from all over the world, but especially Asian countries such as Nepal, India, and Bangladesh. As many have disturbingly reported (here and here, for example), workers have few, if any, rights and live in deplorable situations. To put it simply, Qatar’s human rights record surrounding migrant workers is appalling. Conservative estimates say that by the time the first ball is kicked at the 2022 World Cup, over 4000 migrant workers will have died.

Not only is FIFA responsible for the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar in a highly controversial process, but FIFA is also directly implicated in this horrific situation because it has the power hold Qatar accountable for their human rights violations. Rather than use the Cup as an incentive for Qatar to improve on its already questionable human rights record, FIFA has chosen to feign oversight and has given Qatar cart blanche to do what is necessary to host the World Cup.

And Qatar is only the most recent example of corruption and negligence. FIFA consistently rewards governments and contractors that commit human rights violations, placing the success of events over the well being of the general public, and especially its most vulnerable members. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil was marked by mismanagement of public funds, destruction of impoverished communities, and resultingprotests and riots. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was marked by many of the same problems, including a disconnect between corporate and public economic benefits.

 Public Justice and Moving Forward

Although Sepp Blatter stepping down would be a huge step in the right direction, it is only the tip of the iceberg. As with most matters of public justice, the name of the game is systems. The current institutional structures and processes of FIFA have created an environment with minimal accountability in which so much power can be so easily manipulated. Lasting and meaningful change is dependent on the reform of these systems. Otherwise, in 20 years, we will be having the same conversation, lamenting the next iteration of Mr. Blatter.

However, if this indictment, led by the U.S. Department of Justice, and Blatter’s resignation are indeed the spark that brings about sweeping reform in the world of global soccer, then going after FIFA might end up being one of the most successful human rights actions of the Obama years. A truly reformed FIFA would work to reverse the damage it is currently causing, as well as moving forward in a new direction and accountability and transparency.

It is cultural institutions, like FIFA, that so often get left out of conversations of public justice as political and economic institutions dominate the public square. When political and economic entities have exhausted their effectiveness, though, it is these other institutions that often have the ability to build bridges and bring change. It is in this that FIFA’s greatest potential lies. Few things bring people together across the world like soccer brings people together. In this way, FIFA can not only stem its role as an actor of injustice, but can be a reconciling and proactive force for public justice in the world.

Andrew Whitworth recently graduated from Taylor University with a degree in political science.