Corruption and football: If FIFA were a country, the US would intervene

9 December 2015 – VoxEurop

The international football association is so corrupt that if it was a country, it would be ranked somewhere in the bottom half, says specialist Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, who advocates for a swift intervention of the US Department of Justice.

Speaking on Thursday, December 3, on the corruption indictments of additional FIFA officials (bringing the total number of individuals and entities charged to date to 41) American Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said “The Department of Justice is committed to ending the rampant corruption we have alleged amidst the leadership of international soccer – not only because of the scale of the schemes, or the brazenness and breadth of the operation required to sustain such corruption, but also because of the affront to international principles that this behavior represents”. In other words, it has simply become impossible in the present world to defy public integrity so openly and so outrageously as FIFA has done for many years. On international Anticorruption Day (9 December) it is worth pondering what this means.

For instance, if FIFA officials systematically gave broadcast rights or picked tournament locations on the basis of favoritism, in exchange of kickbacks or other favors this means that corruption was the rule, not the exception in the way FIFA operated. American officials claim that for decades, FIFA officials “used their power as the leaders of soccer federations throughout the world to create a web of corruption and greed that compromises the integrity of the beautiful game”. Everybody knew. Opponents were systematically silenced, eliminated or remained a tiny minority.

Should this be a surprise? After all, the average public integrity in the 209 countries whose soccer associations are the FIFA constituents is just 5, on a scale where New Zealand has 10 and Somalia 1 (incidentally, it is Somalia who has nominated Mr. Blatter in 2011 for the FIFA presidency). More concerning still, the number of countries where integrity clearly prevails (above the grade of seven, say) is of only 44, with those above 5 at 94. Were FIFA a country, it would clearly not be in upper half, but somewhere near Brazil, whose officials seem to have been deep into its corruption, around rank 121, with a 4.2.

And this is only a perception ranking, the most objective one to date, as it aggregates everybody’s rating of a country, but what if we build a corruption indicator looking only at procurement practices, as we already did for EU- 28, showing that EU institutions might come after Portugal (which is ranked 15 in the EU top and is the very last country with 7 in the global top)? After all, Brazil has been known for some years to struggle against corruption, which seems not to have been the case with FIFA. Finally, do not ask where UN would be if you would rank it as country – an organization where after a major cleanup top leaders can still be arrested on corruption charges.

It seems that to arrive at the enviable situation where corruption is deviation from the norm there is still some way to go and what anticorruption fighters around the world battle with is rather a vicious social order where you have to know whom somebody is in order to predict what share of public resources one will get. At least this is what I argue in my last book, A Quest for Good Governance, that we must wage a war to establish the norm of public integrity before punishing the defectors from it. It is simply a matter of understanding what the majority practice is.

The resemblance between FIFA and one of the countries below the average in global corruption tops do not stop here. Corruption is all about unchecked power and lack of public oversight which allows officials to convert influence into material assets. Where this exists, power monopolies take hold even if the institution of formal competitive elections exists. The combination of unlimited terms and himself as the only candidate on the ballot that Mr. Blatter enjoyed for some years is familiar practice in sub-Saharan Africa or Central Asia, the most corrupt regions in the world. And where discretionary power is so high to prevent any opposition (no federation in the world had the courage to endorse the mock candidature of an American sports journalist to FIFA presidency for fear of reprisals from FIFA leadership), then internal control agencies or committees are also subdued. They were regularly petitioned, and found “lack of evidence”.

This is why I find in my book that countries which have adopted anticorruption agencies or adopted more anticorruption legislation have not progressed more than countries which did not. Actually it seems to be the reverse – presently the most corrupt countries have the most laws and agencies, which occasionally are used- against opponents of corrupt leaders who control these agencies. Their best anticorruption move would be, however, to replace entirely those leaders, cliques and elites which have been in power all these years when corruption flourished and after they are gone they would finally be able to limit terms in office, liberalize access to being elected and do all other common sense reforms that many soccer fans around the globe expected for many years from FIFA.

But this is difficult, because the whole political economy of a corrupt country is built in a corrupt way, which is not easy to undo. For instance, in Brazil, a country where at least a fight is fought between integrity and corruption, the poorest region of the country are used by corrupt politicians to get reelected in exchange for funds allocations – very much as in FIFA it was stadiums or other favors for the poorer countries, thus turned into clients of the ruling clique, when not directly bought by cash handouts on election day. Richer and more politically active regions demand integrity – eventually even before or during a World tournament, as in Brazil – but in the end of day it is an average which results. Corruption does not depend on nationality – Mr Blatter, was, after all, a Swiss national, whose country has a staggering 9.8 and is number 4 globally – but on the majority of your constituents. If the majority can be bought, intimidated or pushed around, then a country, no more than an international organization, cannot establish control of corruption.

In the end of day, FIFA is however slightly better than a country, because, as it seems, some jurisdictions external to its own home-grown impunity system seem to apply – at least Swiss and American, as the defendants luckily used American banks and in doing so infringed American laws. Hence the conditions have been created for what is for once a very welcome American intervention.

This article is published in association with ANTICORRP.

ANTICORRP is a large-scale research project funded by the European Commission. It started in March 2012 and will end in February 2017, and consists of twenty research groups in fifteen EU countries. It identifies general global trends concerning corruption and select ‘over-performing’ and ‘under-performing’ countries (in Europe and in other regions) in terms of their progress towards less corrupt governance regimes and conduct more detailed qualitative analyses of these cases. It is part of the Anti-Corruption Research Network created by Transparency International.

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