After Sepp Blatter: FIFA Reform, or Western Imperialism? (Or Neither?)

What can Vladimir Putin and Jeremy Schaap tell us about the just-concluded Sepp Blatter era at FIFA?

As the ongoing corruption scandal came to a head last week with the indictments of several prominent FIFA officials, something came to light that put Blatter’s reign in a new perspective for me, which I first learned from a clip from Schaap’s E:60 profile of the FIFA grand poobah: under FIFA’s rules, every nation gets one vote in all decisions, no matter their relative qualifications. The United States has exactly the same number of votes as Brazil, Germany, China, or Montserrat. So while you might think of UEFA as the strongest, most powerful of soccer’s continental confederations on the pitch, when it comes to decisions in the FIFA boardroom UEFA can only bring its 53 member organizations’ votes, roughly a quarter of FIFA’s 209 total – a not insignificant number, but small enough that once Africa and Asia’s confederations reaffirmed their support of Blatter, his reelection last week was all but assured no matter how much UEFA, its members, and the US condemned him.

This provides a glimpse into the source of Blatter’s power: by rallying the many small nations across the world to his cause. It’s easy to see why FIFA works this way: to make sure rich, well-heeled nations can’t push smaller, poorer nations out of their way in order to get their way. In theory, this structure makes sure FIFA works for the good of the game across the entire world, not just working for the interests of the most powerful nations. Blatter’s reign saw the World Cup held in South Africa, the first World Cup to be held anywhere on the African continent, and a vote to hold the World Cup in the tiny Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, and Blatter has cited the growth of and investment into the game in smaller, poorer nations as one of the legacies of his reign. Most of the criticism of Blatter, FIFA, and the Qatar vote has come from the United States (whose own bid for the 2022 World Cup lost to Qatar), Europe, and other heavily Western-influenced nations (Australia was the other 2022 front-runner). If you were to try to defend FIFA and Blatter’s reign, this is where you would start: with the notion that this entire corruption sting, call for reform, and call to strip the 2022 World Cup from Qatar (and implicitly give it to the US or Australia) is an effort by the Western powers to grab power away from the poorer, smaller nations of the world, take the World Cup away from a small Middle Eastern nation, and appropriate more power (and another World Cup) for white people in the most powerful nations. Indeed, that’s pretty much how most of those that have attempted to defend Blatter, including Putin, have done so.

Of course, while the theory behind a “one-nation-one-vote” structure is to provide more power to smaller nations and prevent the bigger ones from muscling their way into getting their way, the reality is that it just gives a lot of power to people from nations with not a lot of resources, realistically not much to gain through legitimate channels, and (as Putin’s defense of Blatter points to) not much respect for democracy and the rule of law. That’s a recipe for a disproportionate number of those nations’ representatives to use their position to line their own pockets with little regard for the good of the game or of FIFA. Indeed most of last week’s indictments appear to have fallen on representatives of small nations in the Caribbean and South America. Qatar is hardly a poor, underprivileged nation; the general consensus in the Western nations seems to be that Qatar won the World Cup by slathering FIFA members in its considerable oil money. Rather than neuter the power of nations with the most money, FIFA’s governance structure simply gives the power to the nations with the most money and the least inhibitions against spending it illegitimately, by giving too much power to people most likely to resort to corruption.

But if FIFA’s corruption is baked into its governance structure, the prospects for reform might be dim. There’s no guarantee that when new elections for a new FIFA president are held later this year that the small nations won’t rally around a candidate that promises them business as usual (possibly while making enough public commitments to reform to shut up the critics), and it’s not clear they’re convinced enough of the need for reform that they’ll allow any reforms to go forward that might blunt their own power. Sepp Blatter may be just a symptom of a more systemic problem, and the resignation of one president means little when it comes to the thorny issue of cleaning up that problem.

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