Putting reform of FIFA in safe hands – a blueprint for anti-corruption in sport

Transparency International's Senior Advisor on Sport, Sylvia Schenk.


Comment by Sylvia Schenk,
Comment: In this first entry in a comment series Sylvia Schenk, Senior Advisor on sport in Transparency International, opens the sport governance debate arguing that corruption, the lack of transparency and other governance problems is an urgent challenge.

Sport headlines these days are often more concerned with the events off the pitch than on them. Scandals linked to doping, betting and/or match-fixing seem ubiquitous. Corruption allegations and match fixing woes threaten football, cricket and tennis. This need not be.

I would like to focus on governance issues in FIFA as an example to show how a large sporting federation can and should change the way it operates to limit corruption and win back public trust.

This in itself is already a great challenge, so I will save the equally great challenge of match-fixing for another time. I will, however, also discuss whether a so-called “World Anti-Corruption Agency” would be able to play a significant role in policing football and other sports – a proposition that has its supporters but which I feel is not yet ready for prime time.

Let me start with the beautiful game. Football is the world’s most popular sport with a global fan base in the billions. It is a role model for young people everywhere and is an important vehicle for delivering a message of fair play, integrity and respect for the rule of law.

Today faith in those who govern football is at an all-time low following a spate of scandals, which culminated in a series of bribery allegations surrounding the election of the president of football’s governing body FIFA in June 2011.  

Huge media interest in these well-publicised problems at FIFA has been joined by publicly-expressed concerns of sponsors (Adidas, Coca Cola, VISA and Emirates Airlines), supporters, clubs and politicians, who have started to criticise the way FIFA and some of its confederations and member federations work, creating a unique pressure for reform.  This pressure is unlikely to go away.

That is why FIFA appears, for the moment, to be listening to calls for transparency and accountability as the solution to its problems. This is a chance that comes around less often than a World Cup, so we need to think carefully about which potential solutions will provide lasting, sustainable transparency and accountability. 

When FIFA made contact with Transparency International at the end of June, we knew that something different was needed to make sure that commitments would lead to sustainable change.

FIFA is no ordinary business. It faces specific challenges as a non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation under Swiss private law with a huge turnover (US$ 1.29 billion revenue and US$ 1.09 billion expenses in 2010) that is comparable to a large global company. That is why we put forward a series of detailed recommendations to FIFA in August that take into consideration the unique operating environment of global sports.

Tone at the top
No quick fix is available and at Transparency International we know that there is no silver bullet against corruption; there has to be a solid and consistent commitment to acting with integrity, operating transparently, and to having a zero-tolerance approach to breaches of trust. There needs to be commitment to change at the very top of FIFA, because if the will to change does not exist there, all proposals will eventually fail.

When laws are broken, you call the police. Other than that, organisations have to take proactive measures to promote a culture of transparency and integrity. Especially if it is not – always – about criminal acts, but quite often “just” a breach of an ethics code. That is why it is so important to spell out clearly and precisely what kind of behaviour is permitted and what are the consequences of breaking the rules. 

After he was elected for his fourth and final term in office in June, FIFA President Sepp Blatter announced he would tackle the problem of corruption at FIFA. But this cannot be an internal operation, carried out behind closed doors within what Blatter calls the “FIFA family”. 

The multi-stakeholder approach
The first step for FIFA is to enlist outside, independent help from what we call a multi-stakeholder group, for want of a more catchy title. This group would advise but not answer to FIFA. It should be composed of figures of unquestionable integrity, such as people with good governance experience from the private sector, civil society and international organisations. It should include representatives of the world of football such as federations, professional clubs/leagues, FIFA sponsors, players, referees, women’s football and supporters.

The composition, as well as the scope and approach of the multi-stakeholder group, need to ensure its independence from FIFA. FIFA must also make changes in the way it runs its operations. There should be diversity, term limits for senior positions and an enforceable and clearly spelled out conflict of interest policy, with external figures present in bodies that make major decisions.

The full text of our recommendations can be read here: Safe Hands: Building Integrity and Transparency at FIFA We have seen this approach pay dividends in the corporate sector. Our recommendations are based on years of experience providing tools for companies and institutions that want to become more transparent and less vulnerable to corruption. One broad example is the UN Global Compact, with some 8000 participants including 6000 companies making it the world’s largest corporate citizenship and sustainability initiative.

Transparency International worked with the Global Compact to develop and jointly publish anti-corruption guidelines to assist Global Compact participants in reporting on their commitments to the 10th Global Compact principle on corruption. Today more than 6,000 businesses around the world use the Global Compact.

Keep the pressure high
In cases like this, it is difficult to promote change from the grassroots though constant pressure from both outside (media, governments, sponsors, civil society), and inside football (federations, professional leagues/clubs, players, referees, women’s football, supporters) is important to give no rest to those at the top of FIFA.

As in other areas, the perception of lacking integrity at the top of football encourages corruption at the roots of the game. TI Kenya, to name but one example, can testify to this having worked hard against rampant football corruption in their country over the last decade. But even FIFA’s commitment to fight against match-fixing is compromised by the scandals at the top. 

That is why TI Germany is working with the German league, the clubs and the players to raise awareness of the threats of match-fixing and explain proper behaviour, which will have an impact on the governance as well. It has helped to set up an independent ombudsman, which will also act as a whistleblower-system for reporting problems. 

There has to be action right away
On the broader playing fields of sport, there has been again and again a buzz in the media and beyond about the idea of introducing a World Anti-Corruption Agency, that would encompass sport, along the lines of the World Anti-Doping Agency (“WADA”). Thus far, neither the scope nor the competences or structure of such an agency have been discussed thoroughly.

I am not convinced this is a good idea. Today there are anti-corruption agencies at work in several countries, but they are governmental entities, mainly charged with criminal investigation, complemented by awareness raising and research: they cannot be compared to the WADA. 

WADA’s main role is to organise anti-doping-controls within the world of sport and this is not part of any government or state’s tasks. Sport doping – distinct from dealing with dope - in most countries is not a criminal act, so the police or a prosecutor can not act on it. Clearly, you cannot detect hidden payments or bribes with screening system or a blood sample. 

Corruption by its very nature lives below the radar, so companies need to take preventative action, particularly strong transparency measures such as reporting and steps to encourage staff and players to blow the whistle on problems.

Furthermore, the WADA approach is not really effective. It focuses purely on the athletes and leaves officials, doctors, and coaches almost untouched. There are still too many differences regarding the amount and intensity of controls between the countries and a lot of loopholes for cheaters that continue to prevent truly fair competition to the disadvantage of clean athletes. The system in place also has severe data-protection problems. Innocent athletes are in some aspects treated worse than condemned criminals.

A World Anti-Corruption Agency, based on WADA, therefore is unlikely to be the star striker of any anti-corruption team or even a substitute coming off the bench. It might be able to fight against match-fixing by coordinating existing systems that monitor unusual betting patterns and provide some central guidance for the kinds of prevention programmes under development by the International Olympic Committee, Sportaccord and organisations like the German Professional League (Deutsche Fußball-Liga – “DFL”).

But a WACA would not be able to tackle the governance problems international sport is struggling with today. And above all: there has to be action right away. We cannot wait for years while agreement on WACA is negotiated, and the agency set up and staffed. 

Which brings me back to the recommendations Transparency International has made to FIFA. I strongly believe the anti-corruption movement cannot, and should not, ignore the lack of transparency and accountability within FIFA.

Football is a global sport involving tremendous economic, and often also political, interests. It reaches massive audiences all over the world, providing role models for fair play, respect and individual and team achievement. The corruption of football also corrupts the sport’s ability to promote these positive values.

It is not just about having a positive image but telling a story of transparency and accountability, via a medium – sport – that has unprecedented importance to billions of people, especially young people.

If FIFA cleans up its act it can be a model for other sports federations facing similar challenges. 

Sylvia Schenk is senior advisor for sport at Transparency International, the leader in the fight against corruption.

Read more about the comment series on corruption in sport.


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