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A sports governance expert explains why FIFA is so corrupt — and how to fix it

Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter.
Former FIFA President Sepp Blatter.
(SEBASTIEN BOZON/AFP/Getty Images)

The international soccer governing body FIFA has been plagued by corruption for years — and according to many experts, Wednesday's arrest of seven officials in connection with a bribery investigation is just the tip of the iceberg.

The US Department of Justice is claiming that FIFA officials took more than $150 million in bribes when awarding broadcast rights to the World Cup and other tournaments. Meanwhile, a parallel Swiss criminal investigation is looking into charges of money laundering involving the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively.

So why is corruption so endemic to FIFA? Roger Pielke Jr. — a researcher at the University of Colorado who's written extensively on sports governance — says the problem is oversight.

"FIFA falls into a netherworld of governance," he says. Unlike pro sports leagues, governmental organizations, or NGOs, it's subject to very few regulations or oversight, which has inevitably led to all sorts of bribery and corruption.

Pielke's theoretical solution? Convert FIFA into a big business — which would be subject to far greater scrutiny from the government of Switzerland, where it's headquartered — or link it more tightly to world governments, perhaps as part of the UN. Of course, Pielke admits that it's unlikely for this sort of comprehensive change to actually ever happen, especially when it'd cost FIFA's current leadership all sorts of influence and money.

fifa headquarters

FIFA headquarters in Zurich. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Joseph Stromberg: Why is FIFA so plagued by corruption?

Roger Pielke Jr.: One of the biggest things, which many people don't really get, is that FIFA isn't a business, it's not an international organization — like the WHO, for example — and it's not governmental. Like many international sports bodies, including the Olympics, FIFA falls into a netherworld of governance.

It's basically a members' club. It's like if you and I started up a bowling league in our hometown — we got together and decided to govern ourselves. But it's a members' club that's hit the big time. Nobody really cares what we do with our bowling league or if we run it like dictators. But FIFA has gotten to the point where, in terms of scale, it has characteristics of a governmental organization or a big business.

We have rules for how those organizations are supposed to behave. The fact that FIFA has gotten so big without any of those same rules is really what's led to its corruption.

And it's not just FIFA. It gets our attention because there's so much money in it and because everyone likes soccer around the world, but there are similar issues with cricket, volleyball, and cycling. People may have gotten a hint of this with the Lance Armstrong scandal — how it was so difficult to root out that other sort of corruption, cheating. But FIFA is just off the chart in terms of its scale.

JS: So if FIFA were governed as a for-profit business, like pro sports are in the US, the additional oversight might help?

RP: That's exactly right. If you look at US sports, they're so heavily regulated by the government, in terms of anti-trust provisions and television contracts. And the owners themselves have come together to set salary caps and so forth.

It's interesting because in the US, our model for pro sports is somewhat socialistic, and soccer is kind of Wild West. Anything goes. And anything has gone.

qatar world cup

Sepp Blatter announces Qatar has won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

JS: What sorts of corruption has this lack of oversight led to?

RP: With pretty much any big important decision that involves money, there's been some allegation of corruption.

The big one is, of course, the World Cup site selection — not just because there's so much money involved in the World Cup per se, but because hosting it mobilizes a lot of government investment, so there's profit to be made.

If you look at what Qatar and Russia are doing to build their stadiums, we're talking tens of billions of dollars. Today, in the Department of Justice press conference, they mentioned corruption involving the votes for awarding the 2010 World Cup to South Africa. Every one of these events is now associated with some sort of bribery scandal.

With the competition for FIFA presidency, allegations of corruption go back as far as the eye can see. There's also development money, dispersed by FIFA to its 209 football associations around the world. A lot of these are in poor countries, and the money is sent for "football purposes," but there's not a lot of follow-up, and sometimes it's given in cash. The allegation is that it's basically patronage: you keep the existing FIFA regime in power, and we'll keep sending you money.

It's that lack of overall structure and accountability that's really been an issue. And in this recent case, FIFA and CONCACAF [FIFA's governing body for North and Central America] members got sloppy. They violated US laws on US soil and brought the US government into it. If they'd stayed out of the US, they might have been okay, because these other countries like Brazil and the UK aren't quite as vigorous in pursuing corruption.

JS: In terms of the overall lack of oversight, one thing that amazes me is that FIFA conducted a investigation into the Russia and Qatar World Cup bidding process and just never made the full results public.

RP: Exactly. And Michael Garcia, who led the report, disputed FIFA's public summary of it and resigned — and interestingly, he used to work for the Department of Justice in the US, the same office that's investigating FIFA right now.

JS: So how do we fix FIFA?

RP: One possible model is the World Anti-Doping Agency. It's jointly overseen by governments and people from the sporting world, including athletes. So it has that connection to governments, which help hold it accountable.

Another idea is to make FIFA into a for-profit business. Nestlé, for instance, is one of the biggest businesses in Switzerland. FIFA could be the same — it'd be subject to all the same laws and oversight that businesses are.

FIFA could even be drawn into the United Nations, perhaps as part of UNESCO. The International Olympic Committee, while a standalone organization, does have tighter connections to the UN and the international community, and that helps some.

world cup trophy

FIFA's World Cup trophy. (Clive Mason/Getty Images)

JS: There have been allegations of corruption for years. Do you think this new scandal is big enough to prompt this sort of wholesale change?

RP: Well, if you were a betting person and if at any moment in the past where allegations were made against FIFA you'd bet on change, you would have lost the bet every time. So you do go out on a limb if you suggest this is the moment where FIFA will change. But I do think this is the most significant opportunity for change that's come along so far.

It depends on a lot of things: the media spotlight, the politicians involved. If things die down quickly, this could just be another moment in the long FIFA soap opera. FIFA could just plow ahead, and say, "We'll keep doing what we've been doing."

But if the Department of Justice is serious — and let's say they get some of the 14 people arrested today to turn — and perhaps the Swiss parallel investigation turns up some new things, this could be something that really forces change. We're at a fork in the road, and a lot depends on what people in the sports community, who care about corruption, collectively make of it.

On the other hand, after these arrests, FIFA could even say, "We're sick of this, and we're pulling up stakes and moving to Qatar." It's worth noting that Switzerland has an extradition treaty with the US, but Qatar doesn't. So you could not have happen what happened today if they were based in Qatar.

JS: If FIFA moved its headquarters to Qatar, would it lose so much legitimacy that it would cease to hold a monopoly over international soccer?

RP: That's the big question. Would another alternative to FIFA spring up and hold its own tournament?

It's conceivable. But the International Cricket Council did move to the Middle East — it moved to Dubai in 2005. Cricket doesn't get quite as much attention as soccer, but it's still a huge deal, and this happened. And the ICC still runs the Cricket World Cup.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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