Two years ago, whilst at the Championship of African Nations (CHAN) tournament in Khartoum, Sudan, I bumped into a FIFA official, often tasked with the duty of firefighting governance problems in various national associations across the world.
When we sat down, for a frank conversation about the challenges of improving football administration in Africa, I made it clear that better methods need to be devised by FIFA, in order to ensure that good governance is prevalent amongst the continent’s national associations.
Whilst he appeared to listen with rapt attention, it is a matter of debate as to whether he took my words seriously. But I digress…
Whenever there is a conflict between national associations and governments, the latter being largely responsible for funding football across the continent, as there are very few FAs in Africa that are financially independent, FIFA, more often than not, comes to the strong defence of the national federation.
The expected song, from the usual Zurich hymn sheet – that FIFA does not tolerate interference in the internal governance of national federations – is sung, in the hope that the consequent threat of a possible ban from international football – which is sometimes carried out – will ensure the ‘offending government’ keeps its supposedly big nose out of football affairs.
Having seen, first-hand, the damage that meddlesome and clueless government officials, in the different parts of the continent – and indeed in other parts of the world – have done to the management of national federations and the overall development of football in their countries – FIFA’s position, in principle, is well-intentioned.
But, as always, the devil is always in the detail of the everyday operation of the principle.
The assumption on which the FIFA policy of “non-interference” is based – that its member football associations are populated with the requisite number of right-thinking, diligent people, with the integrity not to pursue their own selfish desires but act in the best interest of the game, the premise on which they must be allowed to administer football without interference – is a far from accurate one.
In reality, the best governance structures are only as good as the people who operate them.
When a group of malevolent people are determined to take charge of a football association, there is always a loophole for them to exploit, in order to achieve their aims; sometimes the inelegant drafting of the governing statute or, as is often the case in many FA elections across the continent, the use of financial inducements – otherwise known as bribes – to sway the electorate in a particular direction.
So, in the event that a football association is in the firm grip of such a group, that has a naked agenda of self-interest, how can the right-thinking members of the football community, effectively out of the ‘political’ loop, solve its problems, knowing that credible voices of dissent, insisting on good governance, have been sidelined or squashed?
Whilst it cannot be denied that several governments in Africa have contributed to poor football governance by ensuring that they use the power of the state to ensure that incompetent, clueless cronies of the ruling class are elected to head such federations, there are cases where genuine government concern over mismanagement exist but they can only watch helplessly, while the national game goes adrift.
The reason? Those behind the corruption and poor governance within a federation gleefully and contemptuously use FIFA’s policy of governmental non-interference in federation matters as a cloak under which to perpetuate their acts of malfeasance.
This is relatively easy for them to do, because whenever FIFA sets out to investigate the state of governance in a national federation, the first thing they do is to write to the president or general secretary of the affected federation, in order to be ‘briefed’ on the problems that have led to a crisis.
But the unanswered – and very uncomfortable – question is what happens when the misconduct of the president or general secretary, or a complicit executive committee, is responsible for the crisis?
How does FIFA get to the root of poor national federation governance, if it seeks a solution based on information obtained from the very same people that are responsible for it?
Allowing foxes to remain in charge of the proverbial henhouse is never a good idea, so the old saying goes.
What is expected from FIFA mandarins, as I told the official, during our discussion in Khartoum, is a far more proactive attitude in furthering the cause of good governance in the continent.
Problems cannot be solved without credible and independent sources of information, which are desperately needed to understand the genesis of conflict and chart the right roadmap for better management of FAs in Africa.
The recent decision of FIFA, to support the South African judicial panel of enquiry that will look into the match-fixing scandal that took place in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup finals, was a welcome volte-face from their previous position that such an investigation could be regarded as a violation of FIFA principles.
One hopes this moment of co-operation could be a watershed moment that could usher in an era where the world governing body adopts a far more intelligent and nuanced approach to tackling governance problems in the continent.
As Joseph-Antoine Bell, the former Cameroon goalkeeper poignantly observes, “football does not begin with footballers. It begins with the administrators.”
Without visionary, honest and intelligent leadership from those primarily responsible for plotting a trajectory of progress, African football will only flatter to deceive – which would be a betrayal of the potential that ought to conquer the world.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org