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FIFA and Company: The New Mafia?

Can we clean up corruption in major sports around the world?

Credit: Yiorgos GR Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Money drives many sports events to the point where what happens on the field is almost incidental.
  • Wherever there is big money in sport, there seems to be corruption.
  • Raising awareness of bribery in sports is a cornerstone in the fight against sports corruption.
  • US Department of Justice called FIFA “The Enterprise,” as if it were an organized crime syndicate.

World soccer may have a new boss, but it will take longterm sustained efforts by FIFA to convince fans across the globe that the organization has really changed and is serving their interests, rather than its own.

After all, many mega-sporting events around the world today, including those arranged by FIFA of course, suffer from a severe deficiency: Money drives them to the point where what happens on the playing field is almost incidental.

Just consider the number of arrest warrants, investigations and criminal allegations that are issued against the men (almost exclusively) who are running so many of the international sporting associations.

In just the latest incident, the UK House of Commons’ Committee on Media, Culture and Sport called top international tennis executives to testify this week over alleged match-fixing.

This action follows recent joint reports by Buzzfeed and the BBC on the results of an investigation into large scale gambling on fixed matches.

Noting that, “More than 40 top flight tennis matches were identified by bookies as ‘suspicious’ in a three-month period in 2015, international gambling outfits have a ‘blacklist’ of more than 350 professional tennis players who are considered too risky for bookmakers to offer odds on.”

Wherever there is big money in sport, there seems to be corruption. And the cash involved is huge: According to estimates by auditors PriceWaterhouse Coopers, the total of 2015 global sporting revenues exceeded $145 billion.

TI’s report

Now, in a 360-page report on bribery and match-fixing in sports, anti-corruption organization Transparency International stresses, “The primary responsibility for reform lies with sports organizations.”

It further adds, “This needs to be matched by sustained engagement with intergovernmental organizations, governments, athletes, sponsors, supporters and civil society.”

But the report makes it very clear that forging such a coalition is extremely difficult. That reality must provide comfort to many of the leaders of world sport.

They must fervently hope to be able to continue enjoying lavish lifestyles, unpublished salaries and operating with seeming impunity.

Despite the complaints about big-time sports and their powerful leaders, from American football and US university sports to global soccer, from the Olympic Games (from bribery to doping) to Formula 1 car racing, they all constantly appear to put their self-interests well above the interests of the billions of global sports fans.

Transparency International’s Managing Director Cobus deSwardt is right in asserting in the preface to the “Global Corruption Report: Sport” that “Sport is a symbol of fair play around the world.” But leaders of many major sports have brazenly shown a total disregard for fairness.

“In the last five years, over 1,000 sports events – from top-level soccer games to Olympic badminton matches to international cricket competitions – have been fixed,” writes Canadian academic and author Declan Hill in the new report.

Like the mafia?

The report’s compelling conclusion is that dramatic reforms are absolutely vital. One can only hope that the unprecedented assault on the big mess that is the Fédération Internationale de Football (FIFA) might open the door to extensive change that has positive spillover effects onto other sports.

One of the first things to understand is that some global sporting associations operate like the mafia. FIFA has at times been compared to the Cosa Nostra, while the image it seeks to project of itself is that of the Red Cross.

“Global Corruption Report: Sports” highlights a 2002 U.S. ESPN soccer story that tracks the increasing collusion between corporate marketing outfits and FIFA from 1974 onwards as João Havelange from Brazil and then his chosen successor, Sepp Blatter from Switzerland, ran FIFA.

Leaders of global sports associations across the world have an arrogance that suggests they believe they are both untouchable — and that cash is always king.

For example, German prosecutors built a powerful corruption case against the long-time boss of Formula 1, Bernie Ecclestone.

When he saw which way the wind was blowing in the trial, he did what he always does and offered cash. The trial was terminated, Eccelstone went free and the court pocketed $100 million of his money.

Mr. Blatter’s delusions

Or take the example of Sepp Blatter who blames politics for all his troubles. He is in complete denial about the corruption in his domain.

He told the Financial Times last October that he would still be running world soccer and would not have been indicted by the U.S. Justice Department, if he had ensured that the 2022 World Cup had been awarded to the United States instead of to Qatar. Talk about a man living in a parallel universe of made-up “reality.”

The troubles at FIFA have shocked the sporting world and shone a powerful media spotlight on the universe of sports racketeering.

The U.S. Department of Justice has called FIFA “The Enterprise,” as if it were an organized crime syndicate.

It also issued 47 indictments against 25 conspirators. Under pressure from U.S. authorities, Swiss officials raided FIFA’s Zurich offices and started their own investigations.

The Americans pounced because many of FIFA’s alleged crooked deals involve major international marketing contracts with U.S. companies.

Why do Americans go after FIFA?

The U.S. action has led to investigations of soccer corruption in Trinidad, Brazil and other countries.

As the U.S. Justice Department pointed out, according to FIFA, 70% of its $5.7 billion in total revenues between 2011 and 2014 was attributable to the sale of TV and marketing rights to the 2014 World Cup.

Indeed, the scale of cash in major sporting events has now reached vast proportions, from the estimated $50 billion spent by the Russians on the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games to countless billions that Brazil will spend on this year’s Summer Olympics.

In addition to the arrogance of their leaders, many international sporting associations — despite the vast revenues they receive from business deals — enjoy not-for-profit legal status without mandated public reporting requirements.

In many cases, they are also headquartered in countries that do not have a governmental tradition of looking at the ethics of such organizations.

A further critical obstacle to reform concerns the types of people who run major sporting associations. The new TI report’s editor, Gareth Sweeney, notes:

The administration of sport is often overseen by ex-athletes with little prior experience in management, operating through very linear hierarchical organizational models. While these models may have worked in the past, many international sports organizations (ISOs), regional confederations and national sports organizations (NSOs) have simply not kept pace with the huge commercial growth of the sector, and have even chosen not to adapt in order to protect certain self-interests, including high salaries, bonuses and virtually limitless tenures.

To make things worse, fans who support various sports with their money have no power.

They may detest the match-fixing and riot in the streets, as they have done in some Asian countries over cricket corruption, however will show no signs of abondoning their favored sports as a substantial protest.

That fact is cynically exploited by the “managers” of international sports.

Corporate double standards

The corporations that pay huge amounts to advertise big sports ($10 million per minute at the recent U.S. Super Bowl of American football) have a long tradition of befriending leaders of international sports.

They must have known about the corrupt practices, but closed their eyes not to disrupt their business plans.

It was only after the U.S. Justice Department acted against FIFA and media focus on corruption kept rising that multinational corporations long involved in soccer indicated they would back away from FIFA unless meaningful reforms were undertaken.

Former German Olympic athlete Sylvia Schenk has been active and effective in recent years in leading TI-Germany’s campaigns to strengthen transparency and accountability in professional sports in Germany.

Schenk argues in the concluding essay of the new TI report that there has been progress over the last eight years, from getting the German football association to address match fixing, to improving governance in sports associations.

She concludes that raising public awareness of bribery in sports is hard work, it pays off only gradually, but it can be effective “and may prove to be a cornerstone in the fight for a world free of (sports) corruption.”

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About Frank Vogl

Frank Vogl is co-founder of Transparency International and author of Waging War on Corruption: Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power. [Washington D.C., United States]

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