Mihir Bose: What FIFA needs is not reform but restructuring

One thing that unites all the Presidential candidates is their promise that they can deliver a FIFA that will get away from the scandals of the last year and become an organisation fit for purpose. Yet reading their proposed reforms what is striking is how timid these proposals are. None of them go far enough. They will amount to cosmetic changes that will not produce the new FIFA we need.

Take for instance the much touted proposals of Jerome Champagne. Now it must be said that while Champagne stands little chance of succeeding his mentor Sepp Blatter he has given much thought to the issues of reform and for much longer than any of his rivals. But his proposals fall down because his starting point is all wrong. To recycle the old Irish joke of the traveller asking how he could get to his destination the answer comes back: I would not start from here.

In his interview with Insideworldfootball Champagne said: “The crisis is very serious but the competitions continue to take place without a glitch. The fundamentals are still there. FIFA is 111 years old and will not be dissolved. It will be stronger for all these scandals.”

And this is where we hit the problem. Not only has the world FIFA was born in disappeared and will not reappear but when, in the past, we have had changes to FIFA they have not gone far enough and created problems rather than solved them. So consider what happened when FIFA was remade, just after the Second World War. That is when the British home nations finally accepted FIFA, having for the half century before that shunned the French idea of the need for a world body. Previously they walked in and out of FIFA and refused to take part in the first three World Cups.

But they did so having set conditions which were very anti-democratic. So, all the four British home nations were given the right to field their own teams in international competitions, the British home nations were also given their own executive vice President on the FIFA executive, chosen by the four home nations, and the home nations also became partners with FIFA on the game’s law making body.

These are privileges no other country has but with FIFA broke and needing money from Britain the rest of the world had no choice. There has been one recent tweak to this, the British vice president is now elected by the entire UEFA membership but nevertheless the candidate still has to be from one of the four home nations. In effect the British remain a Brahminical footballing higher caste. Just as you have to be born a Brahmin, you cannot become one, you cannot get these footballing privileges unless you are British.

But if this change in FIFA in 1945 was significant within the next decade and a half other major changes were taking place in world football which, in many ways, were even more significant but to which FIFA reacted in the most curious fashion and which have contributed to its present problems. In essence what happened was that in the two decades immediately after the war there was no longer just one FIFA but suddenly several FIFAs started sprouting up all over the world, known in the football jargon as confederations. Conmebol, the Latin American confederation may have started just over a decade after FIFA, in 1916, but it was in the 50s and 60s that the confederations mushroomed. UEFA and the Asian federation were formed in 1954, AFC in 1957 with Concacaf birth’s taking a bit longer: 1961.

FIFA’s response to the creation of these parallel FIFAs was contradictory and extraordinary. They were not made members of FIFA and at many levels FIFA continues to operate as if the confederations do not exist with the result that FIFA and the confederations often duplicate each other’s work in particular on football education and many other issues. However, in one respect FIFA accepts confederations exist which has had a disastrous effect on FIFA’s administrative structure and contributed to making it a not-fit-for-purpose world body.

So while the FIFA President is elected by all the member associations that make up FIFA, the executive members are elected by the confederations at their own individual Congresses. So bodies which are not members of FIFA elect executives who run FIFA. Not only is this structure absurd but it also means that Sepp Blatter’s oft repeated claim that the FIFA scandals are all due to the confederations and have nothing to do with Zurich sounds ridiculous. If Blatter is right then his fellow executive members have a duality. At the level of their confederation they may be corrupt but once they reach FIFA House in Zurich they have miraculously washed their sins away and are as pure as driven snow.

It is worth also noting that no world body has such a structure, not the International Monetary Fund or the UN, to which Blatter has often compared FIFA. Indeed FIFA’s website calls FIFA the “United Nations of football”. The UN may not have as many members as FIFA but it is not linked with regional bodies in the way FIFA is with the confederations.

Now Champagne’s solution is to have executive members elected by the FIFA Congress not by the confederations. He thinks this will solve the problem. I am afraid it that will not because it will not deal with the duplication we have in world football between FIFA and the confederations. I would argue we need to look at the much more radical proposal made by Gerhard Aigner, who ran UEFA for 14 years.

The point he made to me was, “At the moment football associations from round the world [209] that make up FIFA also belong to their own continental confederations. They should continue to be members of their confederations. The new FIFA should not have individual football associations but the confederations should become members of FIFA. FIFA would become a holding body. There would be a rotation system for the Presidency. The confederations would agree on a President and this would rotate round the various confederations. So what we will get is a complementary situation between the confederations and FIFA. At the moment FIFA doubles up on the confederation. It would also lead to a more direct way of co-operation than having to work through FIFA. At present FIFA bodies have no input from the confederations. We need a completely different way of setting up expert FIFA bodies and bringing the knowledge from one confederation to another. FIFA can play the role of the mediator but the day to day decisions must be with the confederations. They are much closer to the action.

“FIFA would no longer control international transfers. International transfers between one confederation and another would be handled by the respective confederations. So if a player moves from South America to Europe it would be between Conmebol and UEFA and not as at present go through FIFA which can often be a complicating factor.”

Aigner makes it clear that FIFA would still run the World Cup, the only one of its many international competitions that makes money but, he says, the new FIFA executive would become “a holding body supervising the professional management team, approving the business plan, sorting the objectives of the game and that the spirit of the game and best practise is observed. The day to day management for the World Cup and other FIFA competitions should be in the hands of the professionals. When there is money around there has to be a professional set up.”

And as part of this professional set up, recommends Aigner, “FIFA should not have an executive President but a non-executive President.” Before Blatter FIFA presidents did not enjoy executive power. And as Aigner reminds us, “One of the first things Blatter did on getting elected was he made himself executive President.”

Aigner’s point about an executive President is interesting as it goes to the heart of one of FIFA’s problems which has seen Blatter and Michael Platini, President of UEFA, banned for eight years after an ethics investigation into the £1.3 million Blatter paid Platini. The Swiss authorities have described it as a “disloyal payment” and there is no written contract. Both men describe it as a “gentleman’s agreement” claiming it is for work Platini did for FIFA. Both are fighting the ban with Platini still hoping to stand for the election in February which will choose a successor to Blatter.

It is hard to disagree with Aigner when he says, “No professional CEO would make an agreement for £1.3 million and not put that in the books of the organisation. Executive Presidents have the total freedom of acting as they like.”

Now it will be argued that Aigner represents the view of Europe, the richest and best organised confederation which will derive a great deal of benefit from the new FIFA he advocates. Also for the system to work FIFA must have a properly sourced monitoring system which looks at how the confederations are working and makes sure that they conform to best practise.

It must also be said that Aigner is a man who, when running UEFA tried and failed to get rid of Blatter, particularly in 2002. In fact, as he freely admits, his dislike of Blatter goes all the way back to 1994. As he recalled to me, “Blatter was trying to unseat his President [Joao Havelange]. Blatter was campaigning for himself prior to the election of 1994. Havelange got to know about it and he was about to sack Blatter. UEFA got to know about Blatter’s plans, and invited Blatter to a meeting of the executive committee. He was asked whether he was trying to become President of FIFA and Blatter said, yes, if Europe supported him. The executive committee told him there and then they would not support him. Lennart [Johansson] was President of UEFA. From that moment Blatter was definitely against Europe.”

However, it would be a pity if because of this Aigner’s ideas are rubbished. They need to be looked at and considered if we are going to get a FIFA which serves the need of international football in the second decade of the 21st century.

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