Mihir Bose: FIFA reform needs practical ideas not wild, stupid ones

Any organisation in crisis prompts outlandish ideas on what should be done to reform it. But even then some of the ideas proposed to reform FIFA are so absurd as to make you wonder if those proposing them are really serious or just seeking sound bytes. That FIFA needs reform is a given. But to reform FIFA we need to understand what kind of an organisation it really is.

It is fundamentally a trade organisation whose trade is football. And like many trade organisations it has peculiar rules like the one which says no organisation that belongs to FIFA can take FIFA to court. Clause 3 of Article 64 entitled “Obligations” imposed on the football associations that make up FIFA could not be clearer or more stringent. And its trade, football, also has peculiar rules such as that a club cannot poach a football player, manager, coaching staff, or anyone connected with its on field football activities, from another club without the permission of the club which employs them.

In life outside football this would be considered a gross violation of human rights. Most of us would never be able to move jobs if our existing employers were required to give permission before another organisation could be allowed to talk to us about a possible job offer. But those are the rules of the football trade and violation of these rules are considered a ‘crime’ and punished accordingly.

This is important to bear in mind because while in terms of income FIFA is a fair sized corporate body – its income between 2011-2014 was $5,718 million and assets at the end of last year $2,932 million – these rules make it clear it is not quite a proper corporate organisation.

Nor is FIFA the regulatory body of football that it is often perceived to be. To be a truly regulatory body for world football you would expect it to have the right to change the laws of the game. It does not. To change football’s laws FIFA has to go to a body called The International Football Association Board which was set up before FIFA, in 1886, and which FIFA accepts as being the ‘guardian’ of the internationally used Laws. FIFA has 50% voting rights with the remaining 50% belonging to the four British home nations and with law changes requiring a three-quarters majority FIFA on its own cannot change laws. There have in recent years been tweaks to how IFAB works but the fact that the organisation still exists means to describe FIFA as world football’s regulatory body is just plain wrong.

So what is FIFA? The more I look at the organisation I think FIFA is a bit like the British Empire which, as the saying went, was acquired through a fit of absent mindedness. Indeed FIFA has huge similarities with the how the British ruled India. The common perception is the British ruled all of India. They did not. At the height of the Empire, in 1911, 45% per cent of the total area of the country (excluding Burma and Sind) and about 23% per cent of the population was under Indian princely control. In 1910, the British Foreign Office actually recognised about 680 native states. These princely states had complete internal autonomy, including their own laws and, in some cases, their own armed forces. The British themselves could not work out what their status was in international law with one British government document saying of these princely states that “there is no parallel to their position in history, that they are governed by a body of convention and usage not quite like anything in the world.” The criminal law of British India did not extend to the princely states. The bigger princely states, like Hyderabad, could even impose the death penalty, although not on Europeans.

There is an exact FIFA equivalent of the Indian princely states. They are called the confederations. They are not part of FIFA, only the football associations that make up these confederations are part of FIFA. All this has given Sepp Blatter the right to argue that all the huge corruption problems that have arisen have come in the confederations and not at FIFA headquarters in Zurich. This has echoes of what the British used to say about princely states when much was made of the wretched way many of them were governed. For the British, of course, having such “sink” states was a great advantage as they could contrast Indian mismanagement with what was presented as the superior governance in British India and proof of their thesis – then very popular and openly broadcast – that only Europeans were capable of providing capable rulers. At one British cabinet meeting in 1917 it was felt it would take Indians 500 years to learn to rule themselves. As it happened India got freedom 30 years later but that is another story. And, of course, just as the Raj had used the princes to conquer India, so Blatter has used the confederation leaders to first acquire the top job and then retain it.

However, we are not living in 1947, let alone 1917, and Blatter must know his arguments do not wash. Given the scale of charges some of them now face, and the fact that many top officials who have been close to Blatter are now in jail, it is hard to believe he did not know what was happening. If he did not he, probably, did not want to know or is not quite the great hands on administrator he has always claimed to be.

The essential question now is what should be done with the confederations? The answer is simple. Just as the Indian politicians integrated the princely states that the British had left behind creating the modern state that is India, and proving the British wrong, so the confederations must become part of FIFA and be subject to scrutiny in every possible way. FIFA headquarters can longer go on pretending these are events happening in faraway places of which they know nothing and over which they have no control.

But that is not the only major reform FIFA needs. Any proper reform of FIFA must see it broken up into three different organisations. The reason for that is simple. The FIFA before Joao Havelange beat Stanley Rous in 1974 to become President was hardly a model organisation. Rous was at best a paternalist, more of a racist, who reflecting the thinking of his time supported white South Africa. Indeed Africa was so disenchanted with FIFA on this issue, and also the miserly half place it got for the 1966 World Cup, that the entire African continent boycotted the World Cup, Rous and England’s crowing moment.

However, there was no money in FIFA then and, therefore, no scope for corruption. The last 20 years have seen millions come into FIFA but it has remained the organisation that came into being when the British home nations lifted their boycott after the war and returned to the fold.

That has to change and the only way to change that is to hive off the commercial arm of FIFA and run it as a separate body. This would mean best modern corporate practise with full transparency including disclosure of the remuneration of top officials and making sure there are no conflicts of interest. However, one commercial body will not do. For FIFA has a huge commercial quirk. Only one FIFA tournament makes money, the World Cup. All other tournaments lose money. In any properly run corporation these would be considered loss making subsidiaries and shareholders would demand they be shut down or otherwise disposed off. Since FIFA’s goal is to spread the game such tournaments could be justified. But all these loss making tournaments must be put into a separate company, which would be more of a foundation, so we can see what losses they make. At present FIFA accounts do not disclose such detailed information and there is no way of judging whether they are actually fulfilling their goal of spreading the message of football or just massaging the egos and, possibly, enriching the bank balances of football administrators in some countries.

And we need a completely different organisation, a non-profit making organisation, to regulate the game with real powers to change the rules of the game and that means dismantling IFAB completely.

And now that the intervention of FBI, and its long reach, has finally unseated Blatter and prompted, potentially, the most far reaching changes in FIFA, Zurich could look at how Americans runs sport. American sport, like the NFL, were the first to exploit the marketing possibilities of sport. They realised this was a fundamental change and made sure their structures reflected the arrival of money in large quantities. So they do not pretend that the money they make, and the money they seek, is for the good of mankind or society at large. The result is when the commissioner of the NFL – and observe his title – comes to London every year for the NFL matches held at Wembley he has no problems declaring that the NFL has come to seek new markets.

The new corporate bodies I am proposing for FIFA should also adopt that modern business language and get away from the moralising talk that Blatter has specialised in and which, given all that has happened under his regime, only added to the cynicism people feel about FIFA.

Now that Blatter is going there could not be a more ideal time to change although, I must say, I do not see it happening because talking to people inside FIFA it is clear that for all that has happened, and all that is being said about FIFA, they refuse to accept that anything is fundamentally wrong with the organisation. They think a few tweaks will do when what we need is a major re-think of how world football should be run in the 21st century. The structures of the early and mid-20th century are no longer adequate. It is only when FIFA leaders begin to recognise that will we see real change. But the impetus for that change must come from within. It cannot be engineered from outside.

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. The Spirit of the Game, published by Constable and Robinson, is now available in paperback. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose