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Making FIFA Great Again: Mission Impossible?

When can FIFA be trusted again to govern itself and the world’s most popular sport?

Credit: ArtisticPhoto Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Infantino’s tenure starts out at a time when soccer faces the most aggressive criminal investigation.
  • What exactly must Infantino do now to restore FIFA’s tarnished reputation?
  • There are no signs that Infantino is a skilled marketing executive or an inspirational change agent.
  • Repairing the total damage to FIFA will take years, complete commitment, absolute transparency.
  • Excellent players are the single reason FIFA has a shot to recover from this crisis.
  • FIFA should do everything to restore its “soft” political power.

The new chief of world soccer’s governing body, FIFA, is a Swiss man born a mere six miles from his disgraced predecessor, Sepp Blatter.

It isn’t exactly a confidence-building measure for those who want a fresh start at FIFA and end an era of disgrace and corruption that Mr. Blatter has been fawning over Gianni Infantino in the media since his election Friday. The press has been mixed.

Now, we should give FIFA’s new President Gianni Infantino the benefit of the doubt. By all accounts, he performed well as Secretary General of UEFA.

He is a lawyer and perhaps that kind of analytical training can untangle all of the Vatican-like scandal surrounding FIFA since the raids in Zurich last spring.

The raids into that cesspool of illicit alliances and corrupt dealings between the “cardinals” of global soccer spawned a string of arrests.

So far, dozens of high ranking officials have been arrested, yielding 32 indictments (to date), resulting in Blatter’s six-year ban from soccer and leading to the spate of reforms adopted Friday by FIFA.

New and improved?

After Blatter’s corrupt and (almost) interminable 18-year rule, it is a welcome sign that Infantino has embraced the need for reform at FIFA.

Indeed, Presidential term limits, more inclusion of women in leadership positions and the publishing of FIFA salaries are all useful steps forward for an organization fighting just to show the world it can still be trusted to govern itself and the world’s most popular sport.

Infantino’s success will ultimately depend on his ability to revitalize an entity that behaved more like a shady cartel than the non-profit it purports to be.

Think I’m kidding? The only reason Infantino was even a candidate to replace Blatter was because of his heir apparent, Michel Platini, who was President of UEFA until he ran into serious trouble.

Now, a special FIFA investigative committee has banned Platini for eight years for ethics violations. He is also the alleged recipient of an original Picasso from Putin (in exchange for his vote to support the 2018 World Cup Game in Russia). No wonder he dropped out of the running for FIFA’s top post.

It was equally rich when Infantino’s opponents for FIFA’s top post, a Jordanian Prince and a Bahraini Sheikh dogged by accusations of human rights violations, began to complain about the lack of transparency in the election process.

There were also no women candidates, no South Americans like Luis Figo, who made a valiant but short-lived attempt to unseat Blatter last year. So the FIFA race ended up, as they say, with another Italian Pope.

Treacherous surroundings

Infantino’s tenure starts out at a time when soccer faces the most aggressive criminal investigation of a sport—ever. The U.S. Department of Justice has been unflinching in its scope.

Many within soccer fear that the full investigation will unmask the chain reaction of kickbacks and bribes that led to the surprising selection of Russia and Qatar as host countries of the World Cup in 2018 and 2022.

What exactly must Infantino do now to restore FIFA’s tarnished reputation?

For starters, he may do well to radically refashion the structure and complexion of FIFA’s mysterious Executive Committee—perhaps even do away with it altogether.

Best as one can tell, it operates well outside the bounds of any normal corporate governance.

A fascinating ESPN magazine piece chronicles how the FBI used a FIFA Executive Committee Member, Chuck Blazer, as an informant to reveal how kickbacks and bribes changed hands freely among FIFA officials, in a way that you would expect in third world dictatorships.

Mr. Blazer lived a jet set lifestyle, took an $18,000 a month apartment in Trump Tower in Manhattan, was seen with Bill Clinton and Putin, had an apartment in Atlantis.

At nearly 400 pounds—and, according to the ESPN report, bedridden at a relative’s home in New Jersey—Blazer is a perfect symbol for the excess and bloat that has asphyxiated FIFA.

Crucial steps to be undertaken

Next, Infantino must recognize that last week’s reforms failed to truly address the dearth of women within the upper echelons of FIFA, something one of its three female Executive Committee members, Moya Dodd, had deplored last fall.

This move is necessary not just to reflect than an ever larger number of players are girls and women. This does not align with continuing to allow FIFA’s brand to persist as that of a club for rich and powerful men.

Infantino would be wise to go beyond changes in increasing the number of women serving on FIFA committees and so forth.

To underscore the arrival of a new era, he should align the organization itself more closely with women’s rights issues, using its platform to give voice to important issues like women’s health and abuse.

As he plays the public relations game, Infantino will need to minister to the basic business needs of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments.

These events are woefully short of corporate sponsors, due to scandal and the very real possibility that at least the Qatar games will be rebid in the aftermath of the U.S. investigation.

More subpoenas and indictments may be brought before long.

Handling these challenges would be a daunting task for any seasoned executive to manage, let alone someone who is, at best, an experienced soccer bureaucrat.

There are no signs that Infantino is a skilled marketing executive or an inspirational change agent.

Repairing the total damage to FIFA will take years, complete commitment, absolute transparency and a willingness to evangelize its new brand to all parts of the world.

BP and FIFA

After the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, BP spent a great deal of money on advertising and PR to diminish the stain on its brand.

It has worked about as well as can be expected, which is to say had they done nothing at all, who knows where their business interests in the United States would be today.

Should FIFA follow suit? Maybe — except that FIFA has, perhaps, the most valuable commodity in the world to help it remind everyone why we love the game, stars like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Because of access to players, FIFA is not quite at the depths of irreparable harm. Excellent players are the single reason FIFA has a shot to recover from this crisis. FIFA should do everything it can to enlist its stars to help it to reimagine itself and restore its “soft” political power.

Right now — just to survive — FIFA needs more than good press. It needs to reassociate itself with soccer. It needs to show the world it can govern itself again, with complete transparency, and to prove that it needs to get out of the headlines.

FIFA also needs to remind the world that it helps to support the teams, players, coaching staffs and fans of soccer — a community of over a billion people — rather than serving as a personal club for political and financial ambitions of the very few.

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About Eric Bovim

Eric Bovim is a Managing Director at McBee Strategic, a Washington, D.C.-based public relations firm.

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