Sponsors have a duty to society and not just Fifa
In just a few days' time, the 2018 Fifa World Cup will kick off in Russia and over the ensuing four weeks, football fans around the world will be glued to their TV sets as they lap up the biggest football tournament in the world.
Off the pitch, however, some of the world's leading marketers and brands which are sponsoring Fifa and the World Cup will be praying that the many financial and other scandals that have engulfed Fifa in recent years will have been safely sidelined for a few weeks.
Once it's over, however, expect a fair degree of soul-searching as both sponsors and Fifa go back to the drawing board once the countdown to Qatar 2022 gets under way.
When Fifa announced that Russia had won the bid to host the 2018 tournament and Qatar had been selected to host it in 2022, it triggered widespread opprobrium throughout the footballing world. In many ways, it was also the beginning of the end for the ancien regime of world football as it set the ball rolling for several controversial and long-overdue investigations into Fifa, including one led by the FBI and another by the Swiss authorities.
As we know now, back in 2010 Sepp Blatter was running Fifa like a personal fiefdom. Now he has been banished from global football while 11 of the 22 committee members who voted on the 2018 and 2022 tournaments have either been fined, suspended or banned for life over various corruption offences.
While the stench still lingers, the show must go on.
With the exception of a few sponsors like Continental, Castrol and Johnson & Johnson, Fifa has managed to persuade some of its long-term partners to cough up again for Russia 2018. But in the run up to this tournament, it has struggled to fill some of its other regional sponsorship categories as brands shied away from the opportunity.
While allegations of corruption within Fifa have been swirling around for decades - and sponsors have known about them - it was really only in 2015 that they started to exert their considerable influence. In what was an unprecedented move, sponsors like Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Visa, publicly called on Fifa to clean up its act or they would turn off the money tap.
In sport, money talks and without the munificence of its big tournament sponsors, Fifa would be a basket case. In 2016, for example, it lost $368m. This was followed up by a loss of $192m last year. Given the year that's in it, Fifa expects to make a decent profit in 2018. But there is a palpable sense that the days of brands writing big cheques to Fifa without any say or control might be coming to an end.
Fifa scandals aside, Russia too has also managed to alienate itself from much of the western world since 2010 with its aggressive posturing on the international stage. Given that it has been linked to meddling in the US Presidential elections, being involved in the poisoning of former spies, the annexation of Crimea, the downing of a passenger aircraft, oppressive LGBT laws, the spreading of fake news, cyber-attacks and, of course, a major Olympic doping scandal, it has hardly endeared itself to the western world and the values that so-called beautiful game is supposed to espouse.
Aligning themselves to a sporting organisation that has become a toxic brand and by sponsoring a tournament in a country that is subject to numerous international sanctions is, in my view, simply not good business for these global brands. It also goes against much of the perceived marketing wisdom when it comes to brand safety and authenticity. And no amount of PR spin can defend the indefensible.
So why do they persist?
Apart from the complex legal agreements which are in place between Fifa and its sponsors, never mind the host nations, the World Cup offers brands a tantalising global stage, the like of which is hard to find elsewhere.
Recognising this massive opportunity, Budweiser, for example, is using Moscow 2018 to roll out the brand's biggest and most expensive campaign ever. Elsewhere, Coca-Cola has unveiled its 'Being Ready' campaign which has taken two years to make while Visa is banking on the charm of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to promote its contactless payment cards.
Speaking to a UK magazine last week, Visa's senior vice-president of marketing for Europe, Adrian Farina said: "These large events inevitably draw all sorts of attention and if you go back in history you will find there was always something going on, whether it's something geopolitical or something else. People use these forums to express their opinions."
While Farina does make a valid point, there is a much bigger picture at stake. If brands continue to fund and underwrite organisations and tournaments that are tainted by bad behaviours like corruption or state-sponsored aggression, they run the risk of normalising them by turning the other cheek. In sport, money talks but brands need to make their voices heard much louder and clearer and do what is right for society and for sport.
Sunday Indo Business