FIFA Corruption: The logical outcome of professional sport

31 May

Everybody seems to be surprised AGAIN that FIFA is mired in a corruption scandal. The claims are that brown envelope payments and other bribes were made to FIFA officials so that they would support bids to host World Cups. What is surprising to me is that anyone is surprised. This is simply the logic of professionalised sport.

What most commentators seem to have forgotten is that FIFA actually OWNS international football. It is the central business, and national franchisees have signed up to FIFA’s business model in the same way that your local McDonalds is most likely run on a franchise basis by a local business person who has bought into the McDonalds business. And ‘bought into’ is the operative phrase here. National football authorities have given fealty to FIFA and are content to sit back and take the money from TV rights and sponsorship from major companies.

Certainly businesses can (and should) be well regulated. They can be socially responsible too. But if a business is in a monopoly position, there are few incentives for it to care about scrutiny and probity. There is not a rival international football federation out there and the costs of setting one up (for example, of European teams breaking away and setting up their own international federation) would be prohibitive. Whatever the very many deficiencies of FIFA it has near universal membership – something that a new rival organisation would struggle to achieve.

All of this goes back to the logic of professional sport (that is, sport played for monetary purposes). The fundamental issue is not that FIFA is corrupt (or not), it is that it is designed to raise large amounts of revenue. Some of these revenues are raised legitimately, for example, through commercial sponsorship. But a lot of revenue seems to go to individual FIFA delegates. They are merely maximising their personal gain from a system that is about maximising gain. Since FIFA owns international football outright it is able to do what it wants and regulate itself as it wishes. The notion of sport somehow being a privileged zone that can be untainted by commerce and greed is absurd once that sport is monetised and professionalised. The problem began when FIFA got into the business of selling television and sponsorship rights for enormous profits. The delegates who filled their own bank accounts were merely following the lead of the Swiss-based organisation.

This is not to justify corrupt practices. It is merely to point out the logic of professionalised sports that are privately owned. Regulation can help (not all international sports seem as corrupt as football) but the issue of who actually owns the sport seems to be the crucial one.

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