Osasu Obayiuwana: Realpolitik is the cog in FIFA’s reform wheel

Anyone seeking revolutionary change to the way in which FIFA does its business would certainly be underwhelmed with the changes to be proposed at next month’s congress in Mauritius.

As the stone-cold reality continues to sink in, that key suggestions of the IGC, led by Professor Mark Pieth, are not going to be implemented in the way originally proposed – a roadmap which well-meaning people within the fraternity keenly support – it is time to acknowledge that the harsh, uncomfortable realities of realpolitik have always formed a dark cloud over the reform process.

Anyone who thinks that the force of moral argument, as compelling as it is, would be the great bulldozer that would sweep in a new operating order at world football’s governing body, is clearly trapped in a web of naivete.

As Niccolo Machiavelli reminds us in his treatise, The Prince, “There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things…the reformer has enemies in all those who would profit by the old order, [with] only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new.”

To juxtapose Machiavelli’s 16th century observation with world football’s political realities in 2013, it clearly indicates that the basic human instinct of a good number of those at the top table of football – naked self-preservation – is alive and well within the FIFA executive committee.

Without the worldwide pressure that was a consequence of the London Sunday Times’ exposure of the gross misconduct by Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii, then members of the executive committee, in the process for choosing the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, not forgetting, of course, the subsequent Bin Hammam/Jack Warner “cash for votes” scandal, the reform process would not even be at this far-from-satisfactory point.

Whatever criticism, some deserved, that has been made of the FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who, as football’s leader, must, without question, bear a degree of responsibility for the state of the organisation he heads, it is time for ordinary fans of football to have a better understanding of the structure of football governance, if they really want to understand why reform is such a painful, snail-slow process.

The first and foremost myth that must be broken, for ‘ordinary’ observers of the game, is that the FIFA presidency, contrary to what the prevailing global image may portray, is not the omnipotent and omniscient position that it is believed to be.

Anybody who sits in that chair is compelled, whether he likes it or not, to negotiate a leadership path that involves dealing with the various political agendas of the six confederations that make up FIFA.

And that will never change until the president and members of the executive committee derive their legitimacy from the same source – the FIFA congress, a change which exco members are stoutly resisting.

Muddling through the labyrinth of those political interests and the inevitable trade offs that consequently follow, which vary from the unpalatable to what can be described as the morally indefensible, is the undeniable reality that comes with football politics.

And it is not a situation that is peculiar to sport alone. It is one that is the unfortunate by-product of any political system in which compromise, and not just the force of an impeccable argument for morality and integrity, is required to chart a progressive course.

Without question, the wider football fraternity, outside of the corridors of power, is in complete agreement about the importance of the recommendations contained in the IGC’s report.

But the truth is that the FIFA executive committee is not.

As Blatter admitted to me, during a conversation that we had last year, at the London 2012 Olympics, there is a raging war within the 25-man body, over the direction in which football should go.

“There are people on the executive committee that felt their actions were not subject to the scrutiny of the ethics committee, claiming that the body had no authority over them, after it was installed after the 2006 World Cup. It was not so easy to tell them that we are all subject to the same laws.”

A well-informed source that worked closely with Blatter for many years, but was forced out of FIFA several years ago, confirms the debilitating level of dysfunction within the executive committee.

“It is easy and convenient for people, as well as the media, to scapegoat the FIFA president for a lot of the problems within the organisation. He is certainly not blameless. But the truth is that the existing FIFA structure is responsible for where the organisation is now.”

“I cannot count the number of times that proposals, which are for the overall benefit of football, are blocked by certain members of the executive committee, particularly some confederation presidents, who are desperate to protect their own interests.

“Many times, we had to devise ways to get round them, in order to bring about needed changes and I can tell you, it was not so easy,” he said.

FIFA’s very public climb-down, on having a centralised global system of “integrity checks”, for anyone seeking a place on the FIFA executive committee, now ceding this duty to the various confederations, is a clear testimony to the “pushback” that Pieth has repeatedly complained about.

The crux of power, for the presidents of the confederations within FIFA’s exco, is their ability to chart what happens in their sphere of influence, which includes the election and appointment of people into key positions of continental and global power and influence.

By strengthening the power and authority of FIFA, to effectively deal with governance issues, they will inevitably whittle down their own authority. Any wonder, therefore, that there is serious ‘pushback’, resisting change?

In my conversation with the former FIFA insider, he accused members of the fourth estate – yes, journalists, like myself – of intellectual laziness, whilst providing analysis of the governing body’s problems and the entire reform process.

“Instead of providing the public with the informed reasons for the current problems, they prefer to address themes that are sensationalist and populist, which hardly address the root causes of the game’s problems.”

Is there a possibility that his damning criticism might not be far off the mark? That is a question that my colleagues around the world, who have covered, in some detail, FIFA’s travails and the subsequent reform process, should reflect on.

Football will not be able to shake off the problems of financial corruption and restore ethics and fair play in national, continental and global governance, if we fail to address the issues of realpolitik, which, sadly, brought the sport to the challenges of the present.

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.l1695324293labto1695324293ofdlr1695324293owedi1695324293sni@a1695324293nawui1695324293yabo.1695324293usaso1695324293