Thursday, 2 December 2010

FIFA: New Frontiers or Same Old Story?

(PIC: Stephen McCaskill)

The day had started with a genuine sense of optimism within the England camp. The bid team felt that they had weathered the storm resulting from the BBC’s Panorama investigation into corruption within FIFA and after a perfect presentation fronted by David Beckham, David Cameron and Prince William, spirits were high. However by the time the FIFA Executive Committee had exited their conclave, news was filtering through on twitter and media outlets that England had been eliminated from the first round of voting. After FIFA’s trademark pomp and ceremony delayed the announcement, we were finally put out of our misery as Sepp Blatter announced that Russia and Qatar had won the race to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively. While there are genuine reasons for selecting Russia as hosts, the selection of Qatar and the bidding process itself have highlighted fundamental problems within FIFA.

Russia has never hosted the World Cup before and the tournament offers the country a chance to improve the nation’s infrastructure and repair its image tarnished by decades of communist rule. A genuine legacy is possible in the world’s biggest country, something that was arguably not as true of the three other competing bids, Despite the desire of FIFA to bring the World Cup to new countries, many have questioned the wisdom of awarding the World Cup to the two countries ranked worst in FIFA’s technical report. England, who were ranked the highest in the same report, did not have a divine right to host the competition but for the bid to finish behind the rank outsiders Netherlands & Belgium in last place is nothing short of astonishing. For two years, the bid team had been campaigning around the world in an attempt to secure the votes of the members of the Executive Committee. The bid cost £15m and its return yielded just two votes, one of which is expected to be England’s sole member on the committee, Geoff Thompson. Following FIFA’s decision, many were quick to point to the effects of the Sunday Times investigation that revealed two members offered their votes for cash and of the BBC Panorama programme that aired allegations of corruption by another three members. The timing of the broadcast of Panorama was criticised by those who felt that showing it just three days before the vote would sabotage England’s bid.  FIFA did not welcome the intrusions and although they suspended Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii after the Sunday Times investigation, they made it clear that they were not grateful for the exposure of the corruption. The BBC’s Panorama programme largely consisted of old material and although it was not the most enthralling pieces of investigative journalism, the British media should not be forced to censor itself. FIFA stated that they are against any breach of their code of ethics, but rather than attempt to clean up their organisation, FIFA felt that it was necessary to hold this against the England bid. 

Qatar’s selection as host for the 2022 World Cup is difficult to justify. The Emirate has a population of just over 1.6 million people, summer temperatures of anything between 40 to 50 degrees and six of its proposed stadia are in the capital, Doha. These are genuine practical problems that must be considered, and the heat was noted by the FIFA technical report as a possible risk to spectators and competitors’ health. Qatar’s solution for the heat is to regulate the climate of the stadia to a more manageable temperature but problems such as the country’s human rights record will be more difficult to overcome. The case for giving Qatar the world cup rests almost solely on the basis that they have never hosted it before, but Australia, a country with a growing appetite for football that has never hosted the World Cup either, were eliminated in the first round of voting after receiving just one vote. Qatar does have some experience in hosting major sporting events as Doha successfully hosted the 2006 Asian Games and the country will host the 2011 Asian Cup in January. However both of these tournaments take place in the winter, when the heat will be far more bearable than June and July.

FIFA’s lack of transparency and reform has left it open to accusations of corruption and greed while some decisions appear to be improvised and at the whim of Sepp Blatter. Allegations have been raised intermittently of members of the executive committee, yet FIFA has done nothing about them. The whole bidding process is designed for its members to gain favours from countries who daren’t offend them for risk of losing the chance to host the World Cup. Jack Warner was courted by the English bid and he managed to have England play a friendly in Trinidad in 2008 and David Beckham open a soccer school in the Caribbean country as the bid team massaged his immeasurable ego only for him not to give them his support. Governments were required to agree to a set of FIFA demands that promised them to waive visa regulations, strengthen laws that protected FIFA’s commercial partners and to gift FIFA tax exemptions. The governments were instructed not to publish these extortionate demands but when the Dutch government objected to them and did so, it damaged the Netherlands’ joint bid with Belgium. The bidding process itself is secretive and the room where the Executive Committee made their decision looked like something that a James Bond villain would have designed for his secret lair. The vote was only given a degree of transparency when in the dying moments of the campaign FIFA revealed that they would make the detailed results public.

Until the structure of FIFA and its host selection process is overhauled and made more transparent then allegations of corruption will persist. The IOC has managed to reform itself and would provide an ideal model for FIFA. Following the Salt Lake City scandal, members of the IOC are forbidden from having private meetings with bidding candidates while members are not permitted to vote if their country is a candidate. Executive Committee members had long decided who they would vote for and offered empty promises of their support to rival bidders. England’s bid was rated the best by the technical report and on profitability, yet lost to the country that rated the worst. The same was true in the bid for the 2022 World Cup where the United States and Australia were thwarted by Qatar whose bid was the worst technically and deemed ‘high risk’. If England’s bid was indeed derailed by the efforts of our free press then perhaps the World Cup is a price worth paying for bringing these allegations to light and for not jumping when FIFA clap.