FIFA in its present form may or may not be destroyed, as the US Justice Department is clearly aiming to do, but for all the never ending stories of corruption that continue to emerge from the world of football one point needs to be stressed. This is that, however dreadful the governance of football, the FIFA scandal as far as sport is concerned does not match what has happened in athletics. There, as has been well reported, following the World Anti-Doping’s Independent Commission finding that the Russian state sponsored doping of athletes, Russia has been suspended from the IAAF, athletics’ world governing body, and could miss next summer’s Rio Olympics.
And, if you do not accept my argument that one form of corruption is much worse than the other, then listen to what Dick Pound, who chaired the WADA Independent Commission, told me. When I asked how he saw what has happened to athletics compared to football his answer was, “It is not like FIFA where a bunch of corrupt people are passing money around to each other for sponsorship deals in marketing and television, that sort of stuff. This [meaning the athletics scandal] actually goes right down to the field of play. In sporting terms it is a worse report in the sense of affecting those who are playing. That is the qualitative difference between the two types of corruption. FIFA is a b-to-b type of corruption”.
The difference between the two will be further emphasised when we have the second part of Pound’s report which deals with alleged criminal activities by IAAF officials. This report, given to Interpol, has seen the French police investigate Lord Coe’s predecessor, Lamine Diack, for allegedly taking €1 million to cover up doping. Other IAAF officials have also been charged.
According to Pound: “We have spoken with the French police and said, ‘Look we don’t want to compromise your investigation but we would really like in the interests of our transparency to release this by the end of the year’. They have not indicated that is a problem. It is going to be pretty graphic in the sense that those at the top of the sport betrayed everything they should be doing in return for money.” The report could, says Pound, lead to “some civil fall out”, suggesting that athletes who missed out on medals could sue the IAAF. Observe that whatever happens in FIFA there is no question of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo suing FIFA for the FIFA corruption has not affected them.
Now you may well say what does it matter which is worse. Surely both abetting doping and stealing money is wrong. Yes. But we need to understand what affects sport on the field of play, as the IAAF scandal does, and what affects sport in the board room, as FIFA does, if we are to deal with the very different issues involved and make sure that sport is truly clean both as far as the players are concerned and those who administer the game.
And this is all the more important because when it comes to sport we must also deal with what can be called its very special nature that sets it apart from all other cultural and recreational activities. This is that it has its own moral code which varies from sport to sport and has nothing to do with what the outside world considers to be moral.
So, for instance, take in football an outfield player, or a goalkeeper outside his box, deliberately handling the ball to prevent an opponent from gaining an advantage. It could in nearly all cases, unless the referee sees some mitigating circumstances, lead to the player being sent off. Yet in cricket such handling of the ball is absolutely necessary and a mark of great fielding skill. And in cricket, of course, for a batsman to kick a ball away when he is batting could see him dismissed from the field of play, which would be ridiculous in football which is based on kicking the ball. Or take in football a player bringing down another player, that is foul play and punishable by a free kick, a penalty if it is in the box, and could even lead to a yellow or red card. But in rugby this is seen as excellent play and the player or players concerned lauded.
I am aware I am talking of different games with different rules. But the point here is the offences I have talked about are in each game described as illegal acts. In football these offences are called fouls, a word whose moral connotation is clear. But, as cannot be emphasised often enough, these are fouls in the context of the rules of a particular game. With FIFA and IAAF we are not talking of sporting fouls arising from the rules of a particular game. What has been alleged in both cases would constitute illegal acts in all walks of life and all activities, even those that are not remotely sporting.
At the heart of the FIFA corruption is the basic problem that no proper form of governance and accountability was developed as the sport sucked in money from television and sponsors and became a huge business. It continued to be governed as it had been since its inception in the first decade of the 20th century. Then it had little or no money and the administrators were essentially volunteers running a recreational club.
Nothing illustrates the lack of even any sense of corporate governance better than the £1.35 million payment Sepp Blatter made to Michel Platini the result, says Blatter, of a “gentleman’s agreement” between the two which did not require a written contract. Both say this is above board but it has seen both suspended and could even lead to their lifetime ban from football. Now had FIFA developed modern corporate governance this form of payment would have been impossible, or if it had been made it would have been discovered and led to the instant resignation of both men. But that Blatter and Platini can protest their innocence and Blatter even describe what is happening to him as a Spanish inquisition shows how little he has understood that with FIFA having become a corporate body it needed modern corporate governance.
However, with Russia and the IAAF in athletics we are facing an age old problem which long predates sport becoming a business. The ancient Greeks who invented the Olympics cheated in order to help them win and such corruption has gone on in sport for centuries even when there was little or no money. And it is worth stressing that athletics is not the only sport where such cheating goes on.
There can be little doubt that there is considerable match fixing in football and a great deal of evidence that players and referees all round the world can be bought and sold. Here it is worth noting that in the English game, long before financial corruption surfaced with the revelation that managers took bungs during a transfer, it was players taking money to fix matches which was considered the criminal activity at the heart of the game.
In 1994 Jeff Randall and I broke the bungs story involving Brian Clough. But while to our delight it made the front page of the Sunday Times it must be said that almost thirty years earlier another Sunday paper had broken the great match fixing scandal in English football when players paid peanuts thought a bit of money on the side to lose a game was justified. The scandal we revealed led to all sorts of investigations and changes to how English football was run but we cannot claim it affected how a match was played. But the match fixing of the 60s was designed to affect the result of matches.
So what can be done? As far as FIFA’s corruption is concerned the solution lies with FIFA. It is now a corporate body whose business activity is football and it must develop the internal controls and the transparent modes of operation that ensure that the corruption avenues are closed down. If despite this there is still corruption FIFA must have systems which immediately detect the wrong doing and punishes the guilty. I am not saying it will be easy to implement the necessary reforms but FIFA does not require the help of an external body to reform itself. It needs desire by its member organisations to want to make the necessary changes. So far they have not shown much enthusiasm but the pressure from the Americans and Swiss may force them to change their minds.
However, the corruption that goes to the heart of sport and means the spectator can never be sure whether what he or she is watching is true or fake is much more difficult to deal with. For here we need states round the world to change.
So, Putin’s government will have to show that Russia will reform its athletics structure to eliminate cheating. This also applies to football match fixing. In many countries where match fixing is rife one reason for this is that the governments concerned do little to monitor illegal bookies. So unless the authorities step in and reform their own judicial systems, allowing legitimate betting but policing any illegal activity, it is beyond the powers of the football authorities on their own to deal with this scourge. And there is little evidence that governments round the world see controlling illegal match fixers as their priority. They have more pressing issues to deal with such as providing food, housing, security and welfare for their people rather than make sure a recreational activity such as football is clean.
The conclusion to be drawn from this is that while it is possible to see a new FIFA reborn with proper governance the cheating that can make a sporting contest completely meaningless will not be dealt with quite so easily. That may well require an intergovernmental meeting even larger than the Parris conference on climate change. And if you consider how long it took the world to agree on something that could affect our very existence, to think that governments round the world can be persuaded to agree on what they should do to help stop cheating in sport is naïve. Much as we love sport we must never forget that at the end of the day it is a pastime, a very pleasurable one, but not essential to human existence.
Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 29 books. His most recent books are The Spirit of the Game: How Sport Made the Modern World and Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World. Follow Mihir on Twitter @mihirbose