Zurich, March 1st 2014

It was Zurich’s turn, as has been the tradition in a World Cup finals year, to host the world’s football rule-making body at its February/March meeting – the 128th meeting of the International Football Association Board (IFAB). The usual sort of stuff was on the agenda – improvement to standards of goal-line technology, head covers for players, reckless play and time-wasting, logo-less and slogan-free undergarments – though a new item reported on wider consultation by the Board, and at the Saturday morning press conference after its morning discussions IFAB took a leap into the contemporary communications world, live streaming its press conference. Jerome Valcke of FIFA, and the British football associations’ chiefs from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales were, as in previous years, facing the press, but today also aware that a potentially global audience was now listening in on their responses to the press. It’s hard to imagine any real football fan, building up to his team’s game of the week, taking much notice of this musty-looking gathering of football administrators.   

March 1st 2014 might seem a nondescript sort of date – unless you’re a Welsh patriot and fan of St David – but in the annals of international and British football history, it was not just the live streaming that was making history. This was the first meeting of the IFAB since in January of this year, at what was dubbed its foundation meeting, the body was changed, institutionally and constitutionally, beyond recognition. IFAB was formed in 1886 to harmonise interpretation of the rules so that international matches would not collapse into anarchic mayhem. Bringing together the ‘home nations’ of the UK, IFAB carved a place in the sentimental heart of football traditionalists in Britain, predating as it did the formation of FIFA, and claiming much of the credit for keeping the game simple and accessible, without the need to hand over such a critical responsibility to the world governing body. And since beginning to work with FIFA, just over a century ago, IFAB continued to function as an independent body, sharing responsibility with FIFA for protecting the basic concept of the game and its fundamentally simple rules, but retaining institutional autonomy. IFAB made the rules; FIFA abided by them. But all that’s changed.  

IFAB was relaunched at the beginning of 2014, on January 13, as an autonomous body, at what was dubbed a “Foundation Meeting”. FIFA’s website noted that “the signing ceremony in Zurich marked the beginning of a new era for the board as an autonomous organization”, its autonomy based on its registration as “an independent association under the Swiss Civil Code, with its own statutes that define the purpose, structure and responsibilities of the board and its bodies”. In other words, swept into Blatter and FIFA’s reform process, IFAB was being given all the trappings of a mini-FIFA.

The foundation meeting, FIFA’s announcement claimed, was “a significant step in the IFAB reform process”, running alongside FIFA’s process of governance reform”, which, we were also told, has included a detailed and thorough review of IFAB processes”. IFAB was asked to “self-reform” a year or so ago, and has reorganized to include a technical panel (referees) and a football panel (former players, coaches). More meetings, more activities, more money, more FIFA.

Take a look at Version 1 of the Statutes of the newly founded IFAB: confirming its associational status within the Swiss Civil Code; placing the FIFA secretary general as ex officio chair of the Board of Directors, IFAB’s new executive body; and confirming FIFA President “Joseph S. Blatter” as “Founding chairman”.’ Maybe the British members put up a fight against this takeover; or maybe they were spinelessly apologetic about the long-standing influence of the British. Either way, the pseudo-autonomy of this new Swiss association was fooling no-one as the usual questions were parried, the underwhelmed world looked on, and Blatter’s FIFA brought a curious chunk of football history into its all-embracing grand narrative.