“The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” Plato, The Republic
Since the earliest days of democracy, political apathy has carried a price. In the UK, bizarre though it still seems, the price of a low voter turnout and diminished engagement with the political process was a £1,645 claim for a “floating duck island” by a member of the British parliament and knight of the realm. Worse, it was fraudulent claims from criminal Lords for expenses never in fact incurred.
As Plato noted 2,400 years ago, we get the government we deserve. The experience of the many generations that have since passed has only served to reinforce the philosopher’s message. It has been no different in football, whose politics have been at best turbulent in recent years.
Fans and even national associations have been paying scant attention to the conduct of the game’s rulers. Thus members of FIFA’s executive committee were expelled for soliciting corrupt payments in the World Cup 2018/2022 bidding process. A presidential candidate was expelled for having made corrupt payments. Then FIFA’s honorary president, João Havelange, and the former FIFA executive-committee member Ricardo Teixeira were found by a Swiss court to have accepted corrupt payments while in office. It all forced FIFA to seek for the first time ever the reforming support of Mark Pieth and an Independent Governance Committee.
Whether Pieth’s inputs, which he admits were diluted by senior FIFA figures, have had a positive effect may soon come to light as this week football’s political process began anew with the announcement of a first candidate for the 2015 presidential elections at FIFA. Those who care about how their game is run should pay it close attention.
Whether the candidature of Jérôme Champagne, the former deputy Secretary General of FIFA and its one-time Director of International Relations, even endures as far as the May 2015 election is not guaranteed. He has said he “does not think” he would stand against the incumbent, Sepp Blatter, should the 77-year-old declare himself for a fifth successive term. But though this prompted some commentators to dismiss his candidacy as “farce”, by no means does it invalidate the many arguments Champagne has advanced.
The general media focus fell principally on his recommendations for on-the- pitch reforms: temporary dismissals for serious rule breaches, consideration of quotas for foreign players in domestic leagues and an extension of the reach of technology within the professional game. These are populist measures that are unlikely to meet much resistance from the fan at large.
But there is considerably more to Champagne’s campaign for a multiyear term at the top of FIFA than what he envisions for the 90 minutes of game time. And, though it was not published as such, Champagne’s personal website carries what might be considered a manifesto for his political ambitions. The 25-page document “Which FIFA for the Twenty-First Century” is a comprehensive essay pulling in numerous sources and events and drawing thoughtful parallels between football and the global macropolitical situation.
From a football point of view, Champagne details several threats to the game’s stability. Match-fixing, club indebtedness, financial difficulties in clubs, leagues and national teams, doping, fan violence, racism and player cheating are all described as “plagues” the game faces. But there is one common thread that seems most to trouble Champagne, both from a football and a more general socio-political perspective and he terms it “elitism”.
He rightly celebrates the commercial success of football and the transformation of its finances across the world game but in equal measure he rails against the income disparity that has grown up in football, as it has in the world economy. He explains his worries for what this might all mean for the development of the game in nations where its roots are not as strong as in Western Europe.
He points out how children in football outliers are more exposed to free-to-air coverage of the European elite-club tournament than to matches in their own domestic competitions, broadcast across pay TV. He urges for this trend to be counterbalanced by a solidarity mechanism, taking payment from the richest competitions’ TV contracts to be ring-fenced for the countries whose football development he claims is arrested by European ubiquity.
This kind of redistribution will speak louder to the many more have-not nations who vote in the FIFA Congress – the president’s plebiscite – than to the rich European associations and leagues. But it would be wrong to dismiss Champagne as a naked tax-and-spend populist tailoring his campaign to please the ears of the electorate. He recognises that there has been “a loss of trust around football towards its institutions and their administrators … accused of mismanagement and/or corruption” and seeks to counteract these perceptions of kleptocracy with reforms of football’s governance structures. (He quite reasonably points out that this is not football’s preserve alone. The former World Bank chief economist and Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, coined the term “triumph of greed” in reference to a wider world than our industry.)
Chief among his fears are the “secessionist ambitions in some professional leagues” threatening the financial link between the highest-level professional clubs and the amateur game. Such concerns are long held within UEFA: that its most successful clubs might seek to run their own, closed Champions League competition, guaranteeing a virtuous circle – for themselves – of commercial returns. “Others have been active for years to set up a truly European league to substitute the current competitions,” Champagne wrote. The comments in recent months of those driving the
clubs who would notionally form such a league suggest his warning should not go unheeded.
Even without a seismic moment of schism between the European elite and the established competitions, Champagne recognises how the biggest nests have been feathered within the status quo. “Sporting risk and the uncertainty of the result are questioned or reduced in order to protect the heavy investments in today’s football,” he wrote. “Through competition formats which, due to the difficulty to establish closed leagues, guarantee as much as possible to the ‘big’ clubs to reach the more-remunerating final phases of these competitions (€754 million for the 32 clubs qualified to the group phase of the Champions League).”
He added: “Through financial distribution mechanism favouring these so- called ‘big clubs’ when the rights are centrally marketed and sold on the basis of the market, for example with the ‘market pool’ criteria in the Champions League with the consequence that in 2010-11 the quarterfinalist Ukrainian club Shaktar Donetsk earned only two-thirds of the share of Bayern Munich eliminated in the previous round, and only half of Chelsea’s even though the London club was at the same level of the competition.”
As Champagne notes, this “elitism” has filtered through to domestic competitions. “Titles are monopolised by a limited number of clubs: England with three clubs having clinched 18 of the 19 Premier League titles since 1993 [sic; it is in fact four: Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City or Blackburn Rovers], Germany with Bayern with nine of the last 15, and similar concentrations in Portugal… Scotland… and Spain.”
Football trophies overflow with financial rewards, and this has led to “a concentration of the best players among a limited number of the wealthiest clubs.” Yet Champagne does not appear to wish to wage war on the clubs who are under “considerable economic constraints” in having to pay exorbitant salaries to these top players. And despite a clearly expressed desire to improve redistribution of football’s wealth, he does not resent the rewards drawn by the game’s main actors, the players. Instead he enumerates the challenges they face in their careers, in the light of which he considers attacks on the level of the top players’ salaries to be “unfair”.
He also extends sympathy to the clubs as the true engines of international football. As Champagne acknowledges, the accumulation of talent among an elite of clubs has naturally led to growing pressure on those clubs in terms of player release. Their gripes about the way their players have been used upon release for the international game are thoroughly legitimate. Indeed, in a passage that will no doubt encourage the top clubs who feel their needs are arrogantly dismissed by FIFA, Champagne questions why national associations have not given more thought to their needs. “This balance even though imperfect in the past, is threatened today due also – it has to be acknowledged – to football associations which believed that they could ignore the concerns of clubs releasing their players,” he wrote. This has specifically been seen, he added, in the “lack of insurance and medical attention for the players in case of injuries, friendly matches organised in remote countries in the middle of the season, lack of dialogue between national team coaches and clubs etc.”
And for all that he rails against it, elitism is, as Champagne observes, not football’s preserve alone. He highlights how there has been an “explosion of inequalities” across the globe, with discrimination increasingly tolerated, with the individual favoured over the common weal “and a decline of the social fabric.” He adds: “In face of this crisis of a rudderless globalisation without governance, states lose ground to the markets and the stock exchanges. But take this sentence and replace the words ‘states’, ‘markets’ and ‘stock exchanges’ by ‘federations’, ‘leagues’ and ‘clubs’ respectively, the similarity is even more striking.”
Having so comprehensively run through what he considers to be the game’s ills, Champagne enumerates 11 proposals to attempt a cure. In brief, these include:
• Means-testing of FIFA’s financial distributions so more goes to those with less (with, encouragingly, “strict control on the disbursement of these funds to ensure tracking and total transparency”)
• To bring players and clubs/leagues into process at executive-committee level the FIF A decision-making
• To re-establish FIFA’s and national associations’ role as the game’ s principal authorities, where in recent decades they have ceded ground to clubs, confederations and leagues
• To promote diversity in FIFA committees and competitions, with more women in the top national-association jobs and the routine rotation of the World Cup among continents
• Reform of the executive committee to reflect the role of a presidential cabinet, with the statutory British vice-presidency apparently to be scrapped
• The introduction of a Governance Division within FIFA to draw up and enforce regulations and manage dialogue and disputes with football stakeholders
• To make the president the supreme authority of FIFA by diluting the managerial influence of the secretary-general
• To clarify the relationship between football and European law so as to provide a genuine “specificity of sport” principle
• To reframe refereeing debates and not to oppose an increased use of technology
• To clean up FIFA’s image with the help of a reinforced and independent Ethics Committee
• And to make FIFA, its presidency and committees more transparent and accountable to the Congress electorate and to the public at large.
FIFA and football in general has suffered for the lack of accountability its decision makers submit to. The suppression of transparency has provided a shroud for a privileged few at the very top of the game. Unfettered self-interest has in turn driven some of them to what the Swiss court described as “criminal acts to the detriment of FIFA”.
There has been a lack of engagement with some of the most important stakeholders in the sport – the clubs and their players – which has undermined the legitimacy of FIFA governance. This, as Plato warned so long ago, is what will always derive from the political apathy of the governed. But it does not end there. Ultimately, when faced with illegitimate government, the oppressed will always be driven to revolt. In football this has been manifest in the top clubs seeking to strengthen their own hand at FIFA’s expense.
Champagne is right to draw parallels with the wider world than football alone, and our multibillion-dollar industry must work to reasonable market structures like any other. I have long held that, despite being the regulatory element of the football economy, FIFA is itself also a market participant with a commercial interest in the game through the World Cup. Its refusal to engage with the wider football economy’s labour and producer elements – the players and the clubs – and instead merely writing rules to demand their frequent co-option to FIFA’s international competitions and qualifiers, is economically speaking an abuse of its market dominance in the sport.
Set against this history, Champagne’s recommendations for greater transparency, accountability and stakeholder engagement are to be heartily welcomed. By his own admission, he may not himself prove electable at FIFA. But what he has already achieved is to frame the entire debate for the 2015 presidential election with a manifesto that would seek to realise meaningful reform for the game’s governing body. This is good. Those of us who now want the next FIFA president, whomever that may be, to effect change for the good of the game must take care not to show indifference to its public affairs.
Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.