Wednesday 22 November 2017

Old habits die hard as FIFA fights for its life

FIFA president Sepp Blatter (L) and UEFA President Michel Platini Photo: Getty
FIFA president Sepp Blatter (L) and UEFA President Michel Platini Photo: Getty

Owen Gibson

The curious alliance of US lawyers, public affairs advisers and Fifa insiders who have been attempting to keep the show on the road while all else falls around them have one key obsession as they approach a crucial week in its battle to avoid total collapse: to maintain Fifa's "victim" status in the eyes of the US Department of Justice and the Swiss prosecutors who have brought it to its knees.

If wide-ranging, but to many still unsatisfactory, reforms are not voted through this week or it fails to continue to consistently keep up the supply of evidence from inside Fifa HQ, then there are fears that status could change and prompt the endgame of complete institutional collapse. This, then, is the stark warning that will be delivered to the 209 Fifa members (207 of whom can vote as things stand) before a week in which they will vote on those reforms and decide the identity of just their third president in 42 years: change or die. It is not clear they have got the message.

So much has changed since Sepp Blatter announced he was standing down last June, days after his re-election. Yet much stays the same, amid the familiar, depressing feeling that football knows best. The very words themselves - reform, transparency, independence - have been debased by Blatter's tenure.

The package of reforms - arrived at following a mildly chaotic process driven by a combination of the former IOC executive Francois Carrard, the audit and compliance committee chairman, Domenico Scala, and the very confederations that got FIFA into this mess - are all sensible enough. They include a requirement that key committees, including the finance, development and governance committees, consist of 50 per cent independent members. The audit and compliance committee will become, in theory, entirely independent. Crucially, the executive committee will be replaced by a Fifa council that will set strategic direction of the organisation.

Overseen by a president with diminished power, that strategy will be enacted by a board of Fifa executives who will be responsible for commercial deals - in theory removing the toxic mix of the political, commercial and allegedly criminal that characterised the past four decades. The number of committees will be drastically reduced and those sitting on them will be required to have relevant experience.

The key reforms that most can agree on, like term limits, transparency on pay and so on, are there. We will finally find out just how much Blatter earned. But still the nagging feeling remains that the reforms lack two key things: sufficient independent oversight; and any mechanism for forcing the confederations that have been at the root of the problems to cascade the changes down the pyramid.

One key recommendation, that all 209 member associations produce independently audited accounts annually, has the power to be transformative. But bearing in mind that a Transparency International study found 81% of national associations had no publicly available accounts, it requires a big leap of faith.

Even as this brave new world has been pitched to football's stakeholders, the presidential candidates have toured the world in a depressing parade endlessly reminiscent of campaigns past. The favourites remain the Asian Football Confederation president, Bahrain's Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, and UEFA's general secretary, Gianni Infantino of Switzerland. The former was closely linked to Blatter, the latter to Michel Platini. Hardly the winds of change.

Gareth Sweeney, editor of Transparency International's Global Corruption Report: Sport, says: "The presidential process has shown again why Fifa needs reform. The fact that some candidates are running without a manifesto, that a majority refused to participate in any public debate, and that the decisions on eligibility remain a secret, despite some very serious allegations relating to at least one candidate, does not boost public trust. Nor does it increase confidence that the next president will lead by example."

Quite. Yet the view of the tiny circle of optimists at Fifa is that this week's vote can be a step towards a brighter future in which the reforms they propose will over time transform the most tarnished, embedded culture in global sport. But viewing Sheikh Salman's aggressive attempts to quash by legal means the legitimate questioning of his role in the suppression of 2011 pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, one cannot help but feel queasy about the future. Meanwhile, a coalition of NGOs that wrote to all the candidates concluded that not one of them had pledged adequate steps to prevent human rights abuse and corruption.

Even if the reforms are approved (and that is far from certain, given the 75 per cent mandate required), the culture change required is so vast and far-reaching that it may prove beyond FIFA's grasp.

Sunday Indo Sport

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