FIFA and the challenge of global governance

5 June 2015

The newspapers are full of stories about the unfolding crisis at FIFA and the drama of its leadership. Amidst accusations of colonial attitudes and the influence of bribery, it is worth standing back from the heat of the controversy to reflect on what this story tells us about our rapidly changing world.

Referee gives a yellow card to a Slovenian player in the USA v Slovenia game, held on June 18, 2010 at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa as part of World Cup 2010. Credit: seriousilly - Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

It is no coincidence that the hosts of recent past and future World Cups are countries that are becoming increasingly influential as economic and political players. South Africa, Brazil and Russia are three of the five so-called BRICS. They have clearly played a highly visible role in the World Cup as they are in many other global endeavours.

Many other low and middle income countries aspire to become serious competitors and are seeking a share of football revenue beyond a portion of the money FIFA invests in football development projects (US$183 million in 2013 - PDF).

At the same time, large companies have become sponsors of the World Cup to help build their markets, especially in the rapidly growing economies: Adidas sold 6 million football shirts in the lead up to Brazil 2010 compared to 3 million during Germany 2006. This has added a substantial financial stake to the equation.

Management and governance structures created in the mid-20th Century are proving increasingly inadequate for this much more complex global context

The attention of the media has been on the problems that have emerged and the dramas of the people caught up in them. The involvement of a high profile national criminal investigation agency has added spice to the story. We can anticipate more drama as new facts emerge and, eventually, people are charged for crimes and tried in one or more country.

Soon, however, we will need to pay more attention to the management and governance issues.

Who should make decisions about a global enterprise such as world football?

  • Should it be left to national football associations? But whose interests do they represent? Do they have the technical capacity to make informed decisions?
  • Should it be left to the market and the large media companies and sponsors with a financial interest? Who should set the rules to prevent bad behaviour by these companies? What is their responsibility in the face of corrupt practices?
  • Is this a role for governments? But, won’t this further politicise decision-making? And, should all countries have equal votes despite their population or economic strength?
  • Who should decide about how revenues are distributed? Should it reflect the sources of revenue? Or should poor countries with weak football teams and little capacity to pay for media receive assistance to build their capacity? To what extend should a global enterprise take issues of equity into account?

The crisis in FIFA demonstrates some of the major challenges we face in building global governance for an increasingly multi-polar world

Is it possible to overcome the legacy of history and the many wrongs and resentments that colour national understandings of global issues? How can those interested in football build a common understanding of the role and responsibility of FIFA or its successor?

What kind of decision-making processes will enable its leadership to build a coherent organisation with a clear sense of direction, despite the complexity of the context in which it has to operate? What mechanisms can be put in place to ensure that it is accountable for its actions and who should act if it fails to act responsibly?

This is the world in which challenges such as nuclear disarmament, regulation of financial institutions, global warming and the emergence of resistance to antibiotics will have to be addressed. The establishment of widely accepted management and governance arrangements for world football may provide pointers to the way forward.

Image: Referee gives a yellow card to a Slovenian player in the USA v Slovenia game, held on June 18, 2010 at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa as part of World Cup 2010. Credit: seriousilly - Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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