Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

AdChoices
FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland. (Dominic Steinmann/AP)
FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland. (Dominic Steinmann/AP)

Kelly: Changed or unchanged, why bother saving FIFA at all? Add to ...

Four years after South Africa was awarded the right to hold the 2010 World Cup – long enough for everyone to lose interest – FIFA’s top executives began moving petty cash around.

In 2008, the South African bid committee gave $10-million (U.S.) to FIFA. FIFA in turn transferred it to accounts controlled by then-CONCACAF boss and Sepp Blatter consigliere Jack Warner of Trinidad.

The money was ostensibly to support soccer development efforts in the Caribbean – an odd bit of largesse from a developing country such as South Africa that was already swimming in World Cup debt.

According to U.S. charging documents, Warner instead used the money to pay off his credit-card bills, enrich friends and relatives and distribute among officials who’d voted for the South African bid. Each received $40,000 in an envelope. When one bribee demurred, Warner allegedly told him, “If you’re pious, open a church.”

FIFA now wants that money back, and much more. This is the con within the con. Since most of us are born suckers, here’s betting everyone will fall for it again.

On Tuesday, FIFA filed a civil suit in New York confirming what it had denied for many years – that the operation of soccer’s oversight body amounted to a strip-mall chop shop. Money, both dirty and clean, came in the front door and got carried out the back in garbage bags. So many FIFA members are implicated, it’s difficult to say where administration veered into corruption. The lines aren’t blurred. They’re drawn directly over one another.

Dozens of middle managers are in various stages of the judicial process. Some – notably U.S. soccer snitch Chuck Blazer, whose illegal takings are estimated by FIFA at $5.4-million (U.S.) – have pleaded guilty. Others are due to stand trial.

FIFA is seeking an as of yet undisclosed amount from them that could run into many tens of millions of dollars.

One presumes FIFA’s new bosses hope this move sparks a conversation that begins, “Has FIFA really changed?” Once they nudge people that far, they can begin making the case that it has. Watching the ugly details revealed in court will be humiliating, but they’ve been force-fed enough of that emotional purgative recently to grow accustomed to the taste.

Apparently, FIFA decided that living on its knees was the preferred option if there was the smallest chance of dying on its feet.

Even if done with best of intentions (I’m dubious), this public-relations ploy elides a more basic proposition that logically flows from recent events: Whether it’s changed or unchanged, why bother saving FIFA at all?

Let’s start with what FIFA does: nothing. FIFA does nothing.

It has neither formal infrastructure nor a real purpose. Though it talks as if it is the sport’s governing and enforcement body – interpreting the rules and such – that work is actually done by the International Football Association Board. The IFAB existed long before FIFA, and could be painlessly separated and operate on it own.

Essentially, FIFA is a cash-disbursement arm for its 209 national associations. Its only function other than that is awarding the right to host World Cups. The staggering amounts generated by each senior men’s tournament – billions of dollars earned through sponsorship, advertising and broadcast rights – move through the organization. They are in turn funnelled to member associations in the form of development funds. FIFA sets aside a large chunk to pay itself. For instance, it spent $114-million in 2014 on “communications.” In that same year, FIFA had 474 employees and paid $397-million in “personnel” costs.

Imagine how something like this would work for your own extended family. Instead of dealing directly with your employers as individuals, assume you all hired a pricey consultant to negotiate and collect your salaries. This person would then distribute that money to each family member. When Uncle Joe or Aunt Sally need more than usual, they go to the consultant and make a case. The consultant agrees or declines.

In order for this to be like for like, the whole system is opaque – you can’t see where the money’s coming from or how the deals are being done. You just get a payout and have to trust your best interests are being minded.

Though it can be made to sound smart using management bafflegab (“We work as a negotiating bloc; this is a more equitable set-up; we can exploit economies of scale”), it’s transparently stupid. The only person who really benefits is the consultant. He contributes nothing and gets fat in the process. There’s also an enormous temptation to begin gaming the operation – creating factions within the family in order to bolster the consultant’s authority.

He can negotiate kickbacks from your employers, but he doesn’t need to steal to maintain control. He just needs to let other people do so.

In order to make the con airtight, the consultant elevates some members of the family to his executive committee, corrupting them and implicating them simultaneously.

If his bad practices are exposed, what’s your consultant’s best play? First, he denies. Then he pleads. Then he throws thieving Aunt Sally under the bus hoping to save himself.

After the cops get involved, he hands off the consulting business to his former assistant, who promises to call a family meeting, air all grievances and get back to the way things used to be. For the good of the family.

If that happened, would your first reaction be “Maybe this new guy is all right”?

I rather think you’d lean more in the direction of “I don’t need a consultant, thanks. Also, count me out for Thanksgiving.”

When you strip away the blue suits, the high-minded congresses and the glamour of a World Cup opening ceremony, that’s what FIFA does – it plays silly buggers with other people’s money in return for nothing.

Lawsuit or no, the question today should not be whether FIFA has changed. It is why anyone could be foolish enough to continue being taken in by this swindle.

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

Next story

loading

In the know

The Globe Recommends

loading

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular