Sponsors beware: FIFA's reputation has stunk for decades

This week's arrests in Zurich of officials of soccer's global governing body by the US Justice Department have prompted an avalanche of negative attention on FIFA and, increasingly, its commercial partners. But none of this is fresh news.

As I write this, Sepp Blatter, embattled president of global soccer organization FIFA, has just finished speaking at his organization’s 65th Congress, taking place in Zurich, Switzerland. Voting is about to start in the election for president for the next four years.

Blatter is up against one opponent: Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein of Jordan. Blatter will win the vote. Blatter always wins the vote. [Update: as predicted, he won again.]

He wins because FIFA, like most global sporting organizational bodies, operates a one-country-one-vote system, meaning every one of its 209 member associations has equal sway, whether they are representing soccer superpowers such as Germany, Brazil, England, or, increasingly, the United States, or minnows such as Botswana, Trinidad and Tobago, and Macau.

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Blatter has always made sure he looked after the minnows under the umbrella aim of developing football (soccer) for all – wherever they are in the world.

This is a noble ambition, for sure. But the arrests of several FIFA officials early Wednesday morning by Swiss authorities with plans to extradite them to the US on federal corruption charges could finally shed legislative light on some of the techniques used to look after the minnows.

Switzerland also began an investigation into the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively, just hours after top officials from FIFA were arrested. Blatter was not one of them and the international soccer body said there will be no re-vote on hosting the two tournaments.

FIFA's director of communications and public affairs Walter De Gregorio fronted up a press conference following the arrests on Wednesday morning. He was roundly panned for his performance and the messages coming across that FIFA was a "damaged party" and the developments were positive for the organization.

To be honest, the guy was hung out to dry in a no-win situation, further hampered by the need for translation and several languages through the presser. He seemed on reasonable terms with most of the journos firing questions at him. He was essentially taking one for his boss and the FIFA team, and sometimes comms pros have to do that.

But the awarding of a World Cup to a non-football nation such as Qatar may in retrospect come to be seen as the straw that broke the camel’s back. This is a country with no soccer heritage where temperatures in the months when the World Cup is usually played exceed 120 degrees.

It’s a country with strong commercial interests in staging a showpiece occasion like this and emerging brands in neighboring Dubai such as Emirates Airlines, already a sponsor of English Premier League team Arsenal.

In 2010, the World Cup was held in South Africa, a soccer-mad nation that, the theory went, could help spearhead the growth of soccer in the whole continent. But under no criteria is Qatar in the same category. Its winning bid stank of commercial expediency and shady deals behind closed doors.

Hundreds of migrant workers have already lost their lives building the stadia for the tournament that is likely to be moved to the months of November and December, thus disrupting most of the schedules of the major soccer leagues throughout the world.

As FIFA’s website notes, England is the originator of the beautiful global game. "The contemporary history of the world's favorite game spans more than 100 years. It all began in 1863 in England, when rugby football and association football branched off on their different courses and the Football Association in England was formed - becoming the sport's first governing body," says the site.

Despite this history, and the fact that its Premier League continues to be the most marketable soccer league in the world, puzzlingly England hasn’t hosted a World Cup tournament since 1966. Cynics would suggest that England had historically refused to play the global games required to bring in votes from far-flung corners of the world that are just as important in the process as the major soccer powers.

But England is by no means an innocent bystander in this unsavory scene. Perhaps frustrated by its inability to bring the tournament to the spiritual home of soccer for such a long time, its own governing body, the Football Association, embarked on activities that could be positioned as being spurred by a feeling that "if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them."

A report into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids by FIFA ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert said England's bid team used dubious tactics to try and win the support of former FIFA vice-president Jack Warner, who is from Trinidad and Tobago and quit in 2011 after a number of bribery allegations.

The report said English officials tried to help "a person of interest to him [Warner]" find a part-time job in the UK, let the Trinidad and Tobago Under-20 squad hold a training camp in the UK in 2009, and sponsored a $55,000 gala dinner for the Caribbean Football Union.

And last year, during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, FA chairman Greg Dyke was one of 65 individuals presented with a goodie bag containing items including a limited edition $25,000 watch by the Brazilian FA during a FIFA congress meeting in São Paulo. Dyke eventually bowed to pressure and returned the watch.

None of this information is new by the way: The thing that has changed is that someone has finally had the cojones to take meaningful action and prompt some actual arrests, spearheaded by newly installed US Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

For more than a decade, British reporter Andrew Jennings has been tracking Blatter and FIFA’s actions, working for The Sunday Times newspaper and the BBC’s investigative documentary series Panorama. Jennings’ film for the BBC about corruption at FIFA, The Beautiful Bung, appeared way back in 2006.

The whole thing stinks and has done for a long time. The only people who can hold their heads up high are Jennings and other campaigning journalists who refused to let the issue die and whose efforts may finally be about to bear results.

In truth, nobody else comes out of it with any credit – including World Cup sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Adidas, McDonald’s, Visa, Hyundai, Budweiser, and Russian energy giant Gazprom. Given coverage such as those instances mentioned above, it is difficult to see how sponsors weren’t aware of the issues with FIFA as a governing body and the flaws with procedures around voting for World Cup hosting rights.

It seems a blind eye has been turned that has been convenient to most of the parties concerned. Only now with the legal developments of Wednesday are the stakeholders involved being forced to face up to reality.

In fact, the sponsors could be the ultimate force that forces change at FIFA, because the whole unedifying spectacle is underpinned by the millions of dollars they pump into the quadrennial extravaganza.

From a business and communications point of view, it’s a stark reminder that the glamour and excitement of major sports and entertainment events can never be allowed to cloud the authenticity, ethics, and transparency that should always underpin brand and corporate reputation.

Let’s hope the sponsors finally do the right thing and act in their own long-term branding interests and the interests of the many millions of soccer fans from around the world, increasingly including the United States, to help clean up this sorry mess.

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