Osasu Obayiuwana: Pieth’s farewell to football

With just days to the end of the year, and his tenure as the chair of FIFA’s Independent Governance Committee (IGC), you would think Mark Pieth is extremely glad to be well rid of an assignment he admitted has been extremely difficult to manage – getting the game’s chieftains to radically change the way they do business.

In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Pieth was quoted as telling the German newspaper that he “would not take on the task again, in such a circus, where the various factions [within the global administration of the game] attack each other all the time.”

But the Swiss law professor, now taking up a new role as the head of the African Development Bank’s appeals board, insists he would have still accepted the post, even if he had foreknowledge of the “pushback” he got from football’s disgruntled.

“I am never one that shirks a challenge, so I would have still taken up this position, even with all the challenges I have faced… I am an eternal optimist,” he told me in Aarhus, Denmark, during the last ‘Play The Game’ conference.

“Things will change but they are going to change at a much slower pace than one would like. This is natural. FIFA is a self-regulating body and no one is forcing them to change, except angry voices in the media and the wider public. But they are not very scared of us,” he says, matter-of-factly.

“I have to say that I have been quite astonished with the ‘measure of emotionality’ (his exact words) that is linked to this topic [of reform].

“As an Argentinian expert told me, it (the struggle within football) is not about the game, it’s about power and money… He was being honest.

“The continental confederations are very strong and autonomous and they are an inbuilt opposition to reforms.

“I have been astonished that it has been UEFA, of all the confederations, that flexed their muscles in blocking changes, particularly southern Europeans who were determined to subvert the process.”

The blunt refusal of the confederations to allow FIFA to take direct charge of integrity checks, concerning people seeking election on to its executive committee – a key point of the IGC’s recommendations – has been regarded by critics as a worrying sign that sustained reform remains a very distant prospect.

Pieth, who says the confederation’s opposition is a “mistake”, is certainly not disagreeing with the critics.

“This [recommendation] is one of our fundamental points… It is essential that new people coming to the executive committee do not come in with a bad record or reputation, which is the reason for the checks. It’s nothing special. It is a standard practice in any international organisation.

“Some confederations are fearing that FIFA will abuse the process of a central check, to undermine their prerogative to choose people. There is clearly a power game between them.”

Pieth believes the decentralised system preferred by the confederations can work only if reputable international consulting firms are allowed to manage the process throughout the confederations, to ensure there is a universal application of standards.

But, as he grudgingly says, “this would be the second best option.”

Diplomatically describing his relationship with FIFA president Sepp Blatter as being one of “ups and downs”, Pieth was ‘surprised’ when Blatter said he ought not have gone public with his deep frustrations about the reform process.

Blatter told this writer, earlier in the year, that Pieth should have sought permission from him before speaking to the media.

“I had to laugh, a little bit, when I heard those remarks,” Pieth said.

“I am a person known to be outspoken… We are both Swiss and speak the same language. But we are certainly not buddies…

“I think there was a misunderstanding, as to our role. We, as the IGC, are not the usual consultants that you just hire and fire…

“Blatter is a very astute politician and he clearly had difficulties, with members of his constituency, concerning my statements. We were also using the media to position ourselves. There was clearly a kind of political game being played.”

Pieth warns that the process of reform, if it is to be sustained, must not be tied to individuals.

“It would be a mistake to personalise the entire process. It is not a question of Mr Blatter and his reforms. He is positively motivated to push this process, obviously for his own reasons.

But it is vital that we put in a structure that will last, so that a new generation of leaders can push things even further.

“Two particular issues that were a part of our recommendations, which are term limits, as well as a restriction on the age of people that can seek office, are naturally opposed by those whose personal interests will be affected.

“It would be good for these recommendations to be implemented before there is a handover to a new leader [for FIFA].”

Pieth advises members of the football community, expecting a faster pace of change, to be realistic about the difficulties of reforming an organisation not used to succumbing to justified public pressure.

“Football is not outside of the world… It is natural that the problems that are found in other spheres of life are found in FIFA.

“Sometimes, I am astonished at the attitude of some critics, among them some journalists in central Europe, who believe the standards for football officials should be higher than the ones expected from politicians. I think they should be as tough on their own politicians as there are with officials in FIFA.”

Enshrining transparency and good governance in the sport’s statutes will certainly go a long way in forcing through much needed change.

As Pieth rightly points out though, strengthening regulations is just one part of the solution.

“It is not about changing text on paper. It is about changing a culture.”

But for the man who, before this task, had no relationship with football, even as a fan, crossing that Rubicon is a no longer a matter he has to worry over.

And I suspect he is not particularly displeased about that. Sounding the bell of reform wins you very few friends in the corridors of power.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1558479836labto1558479836ofdlr1558479836owedi1558479836sni@a1558479836nawui1558479836yabo.1558479836usaso1558479836

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.