Who can rein in powerful, footloose FIFA?

June 15, 2015 12:40
FIFA will continue to get away with misconduct until football fans worldwide show their disgust by turning off the TV. Photo: FIFA

FIFA, soccer's international governing body, is now a center of power standing next to nation-states.

On football matters, it wields omnipotent authority.

The globe is not large enough for a second FIFA.

Therefore, in deciding which country to host the World Cup, FIFA has the ability to shift the balance of power between interest groups within the host country, creating winners and losers.

Its influence reaches as far as creating jobs, boosting growth and even (re)branding a nation.

For instance, as FIFA's corruption scandal unfolds, Russia painfully learned that its US$12.2 billion investment in the 2018 World Cup could go bad overnight – and this would hurt the oligarchs disproportionately.

The West can only dream of mimicking FIFA’s feat in its dealings with Russia.

FIFA's outgoing president, Sepp Blatter, was even accused of influencing Trinidad’s 2010 general election.

If the accusation is true, this amounts to an interference with the domestic affairs of a country.

The FIFA scandal also shows that transnational relations can possibly affect international relations.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia denounced the arrests of top FIFA officials as an example of the abuse of power by the United States.

And Qatar, under a cloud for alleged improprieties in its bid for the 2022 World Cup, fiercely leveled charges of western “prejudice and racism” against it.

What can the world do about the FIFA scandal?

The answer seems to be not very much.

The world could not even prevent Blatter's election for the fifth time to FIFA's presidency.

In an allusion to the movie Alien, David Bernstein, the former chairman of the English Football Association, said, “you could not get the alien out of that spaceship, no matter how hard you tried”.

Ultimately, at the heart of the issue is what holds FIFA accountable, as long as it obeys national laws.

At the time of writing, the answer appears to be sponsors and patrons.

Yes, football officials vote for FIFA’s president, but there isn't a global electorate of football fans.

It is therefore amusing to see Blatter say in his resignation speech, “I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football.”

So far, there have been mainly national responses to the global issue.

Swiss prosecutors are investigating whether FIFA has broken Swiss laws, and Australian prosecutors are investigating if it has broken Australian laws.

There isn't a global government or a global court to deal with allegations that Russia and Qatar bought World Cup hosting rights – so long as the two countries do not launch their own probes.

But any Russian or Qatari wrongdoings affect the well-being of others.

Countries who lost their bids for the World Cup suffer from lost economic opportunities.

They have a stake in at least hearing a verdict on FIFA.

The partial solution comes from the US, even though the FBI investigates FIFA only to the extent of the federation's compliance with strictly US laws.

The buzzword here is "structural power".

A concept developed by Susan Strange, structural power is a way to analyze US power emanating from the country's dominance in the four structures of security, production, finance and knowledge.

In finance, for example, the US has a standing in the scandal because FIFA’s transactions, presumably denominated in US dollars, go through banks operating in the US.

Any US financial blockade would immediately cause FIFA to go broke.

In production, the US could act if it suspected FIFA violated US laws outside the US.

This would deter FIFA, given how lucrative the soccer market in the US is becoming.

It was probably the use of western structural power that forced Blatter to step down -- FIFA cannot afford to organise a World Cup without US dollars and without the teams of England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Despite this, the scandal confirms that structural power is only an indirect check on the misconduct of footloose global organisations. 

In the absence of a global government, the next best option is international cooperation.

The Group of Seven summit in Germany last week discussed a crackdown on corruption.

Alternatively, we can bet on the formation of a "global community" that consistently monitors FIFA on online media and imposes a penalty in the event of corruption.

Whether football fans will turn off the television when the World Cup is showing is another matter, though.

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EJ Insight contributor