When FIFA President Sepp Blatter told the world over two years ago that his organisation would clean up its act and enter a new era of transparency after sinking to a low following an unprecedented period of corruption, supporters took him at his word while cynics – of whom there are a fair few – looked to the heavens and questioned whether it would really happen.
Since then there have been hundreds of column inches written about the Great Reform Process designed pull FIFA into the 21st century and which comes to head on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius at the end of next month when 209 member nations vote at FIFA’s annual congress on the need for change.
Amid all the bold statements and rhetoric, no-one knows exactly what will end up being in or left out. No-one is certain which reforms will see the light of day and which will be blocked. The picture that is emerging, however, is that a number of the original recommendations, drawn up by a body known as the Independent Governance Committee and headed by Swiss professor Mark Pieth – who has almost unwittingly gained considerable notoriety – will be considerably watered down by the time the final package is put to the vote.
Last month, after intensive negotiations, Fifa’s executive committee rubber-stamped a batch of firm proposals for Congress that included the following:
– Limits on the term and age limits for both the president and his Ex-Co members
– Future World Cup candidates to be shortlisted by the exco, with Congress to vote on the winner
– Whether Britain should lose its automatic Fifa vice-presidency with the seat instead going to Europe
– Expanding the exco to 27 members to include three women, one of them elected, the other two co-opted
– Integrity checks for future high-ranking officials
It sounds like a fait accompli; in fact it is anything but. That would be ignoring the entrenched positions, political manoevring and personal agenda of FIFA’s power brokers, accused in some quarters of being more interested in their own ambitions rather than embracing genuine change.
Take, for instance, the proposal for identity checks. Pieth, commissioned by FIFA to mastermind the reforms, had originally insisted that an independent group of experts should do the vetting to protect FIFA from infiltration by dubious characters. No go, said UEFA, the most influential of all six confederations. Any integrity checks, it countered, should be scrutinised and managed by the confederations themselves. Such neutering seems certain to appeal in Mauritius to the other confederations too. Why? Because most of them have had high-ranking officials either suspended or expelled from football in the last three years.
Remarkably, Theo Zwanziger, the former German FA federation president now leading the reform process into its final stages, presented this as a victory at a bizarre news conference following the recent exco meeting in Zurich. “It was the will of all six confederations to accept this integrity check and undertake to carry them out,” said Zwanziger, whose team were only inserted into the process last September despite an earlier FIFA flow chart which had the IGC reporting direct to the exco. “Any candidate must sign that he has no police record or record of some kind of behaviour that would be contrary to our criteria and this must be taken into account by those who elect him. We need to trust the people who are competent and working in their confederations.”
Zwanziger then added a carefully worded self-protecting rider. “This integrity check will have to be presented to FIFA and, if there is any doubt over whether it is correct and accurate then the ethics committee can look into that case,” he added. “Yeah really? Reform, what reform?” screamed the sceptics.
Within hours of Zwanziger’s remarks, Pieth’s body was back on the offensive, re-iterating its stance that integrity checks should be far more rigorous and carried out by independent advisors to stop dubious characters holding power. Just as importantly, it urged FIFA to re-insert another original idea that also seems certain to be missing from the Mauritius summit: ensuring the presence of independent anti-corruption observers to sit in on all FIFA Ex-Co meetings. After all, most not-for-profit organisations in the world have non-executive board members providing oversight. A third IGC idea that seems likely to be out of any final agreement is an independent oversight of FIFA’s governance, and a fourth disclosure of salaries and bonuses. For an organisation sitting on cash reserves of $1.4bn (£923m), anti-corruption officials believe such scrutiny should be a matter of course.
As I wrote recently, for all the talk of unity, it now seems likely that a chunk of the reform package – two years in the making – will not actually come anywhere near being comprehensively approved. Tellingly, Zwanziger has spoken of “dissenting voices” whilst at the same time undermining Pieth as “just a counsellor”. So if this is the case, why was Pieth employed in the first place if his ideas were to carry such little bite? There is, let’s face it, still no firm agreement on age and term limits for senior FIFA bigwigs. A principle will be agreed in Mauritius for sure but what will the time frame be? Eight years or 12 years as president? One mandate or more? A 72-year-old age limit or higher? We still don’t know for sure and one of the reasons could be that Blatter still hasn’t yet made up his mind whether he really does want to stand down in 2015 or if he will seek to carry on into a fifth term. If he decides, against all odds, to do the latter, how would he be viewed if newly imposed statues cover future FIFA presidents but not himself?
Just as many questions as answers, then, as we head towards the all-important FIFA Congress. Has the IGC been played for fools by FIFA’s elected membership? What are the actual criteria in terms of the proposed new World Cup bidding process? Whatever you think of Qatar being awarded the 2022 World Cup – and there is still no firm evidence to suggest they broke any rules – the fact remains that FIFA’s own inspection team flagged up a number of serious snags that were ultimately ignored by voting exco members.
Like it or not, FIFA’s image within the public at large is hardly one of honesty and progression. And of course FIFA is an easy target, but then it doesn’t seem to always help itself (unless it is helping itself to money, as the newspaper headlines like to scream). The entire problem, as most fans see it, is the secrecy with which FIFA conducts its business, particularly at exco level. That is why the Great Reform Process is so fundamental to the future of the so-called ‘football family’. That is why financial and moral credibility is so important. FIFA’s reputation could live or die by the outcome in Mauritius.
Andrew Warshaw is Insideworldfootball’s chief correspondent