FIFA and Ethics: Contradictions, Challenges and Corruption

FIFA and Ethics: Contradictions, Challenges and Corruption 


In an insightful overview of the capacity of sociological perspectives to enlighten us about the place of ethics in sport, Chas Critcher wrote, back in the early 1990s, that there are well-established “ways in which the organization of sport actually contributes to disorder, deviance and unethical behavior by its emphasis on success, the ambiguity of its rules and its occasional institutionalisation of corruption”. (Critcher, 1995: 33). Critcher focused upon examples from a range of sports and invited readers to think through his major points with reference to sport-based examples of their own. The thrust of his discussion was towards players, and how they might juggle their understanding of rules, norms and values in competitive sport. Itstruck me at the time that the powerbrokers of sport, the administrators and organizers, might in fact be the source of unethical practices in the world of sport, quite as much as and even more so than those over whom they held administrative power. One of the ways in which research on sport has been widely extended in the intervening years is by subjecting sport governance to critical analysis, and work on various organisations has revealed deeply embedded forms of corrupt practice at the highest level of such organisations. Indeed, when focusing upon bodies such as the IOC and FIFA it soon became clear that the institutionalization of corruption might be, if not rampant in the sector, then certainly much more frequent than Critcher’s use of the word ‘occasional’suggested. Much of my individual and collaborative research on the history, sociology and politics of FIFA has generated evidence to support this; in this piece I reflect, 25 years later, on the ethical shortcomings of the FIFA model, and the ethical practicalities that may prevent deep and genuine reform of FIFA’s institutional modus operandi. [1]

Between 1974 and early 2016 FIFA had two presidents, the Brazilian João Havelange and his successor the Swiss Joseph “Sepp”Blatter. Havelange won one election, against Englishman Stanley Rous to gain the presidency, and then was re-elected unopposed for a further five terms. Blatter was elected, defeating Lennart Johannson of UEFA, in 1998. He saw off challenges for the presidency from Issa Hayatou of Cameroon in 2002, and Prince Ali Bin Hussein of Jordan in 2015. In 2007 and 2011 he had been re-elected unopposed. How did these two men secure eleven terms of office spanning 42 years? (Blatter also won a fifth term in May 2015, his election victory clouded by the indictment by the US Department of Justice of 14 FIFA-connected personnel, and his tenure foreshortened by his decision –before his humiliation later in the year, when he was suspended and then banned by his own ethics committee – to stand down by February 2016). How did FIFA and the global football world continue to anoint, and accept the autocratic and dictatorial presidential styles of, Havelange and Blatter? In this piece I offer a small and focused argument focused upon a critical flaw in the organizational composition of FIFA, also manifest in the ethical vulnerability of numerous other world governing bodies of sport. It presents snapshots of Blatter strategies, considering how both before and since the establishment of an ethics process, dissent has been routinely silenced and collusion bordered on corruption until conditions conducive to the rise of emboldened and sustained critical voices emerged. In this context the reforming or transformational capacity of ethical processes are evaluated. I begin with some theoretical reflections on the conditions and contexts in which social change can emerge and might stimulate reformed structures and practices that could be claimed as transformative.

Organizational change and agency

We are now aware, and have known for some time in many cases, that the sporting international non-governmental organization, the SINGO (Allison and Tomlinson, 2017) is mired in the polluted waters of corrupt practice and burdened by an unprecedentedly disastrous public image; in such a climate, what are the possibilities, if any, for constructive change? There may be alternatives to the SINGO, proposed by activists, business consultants or management experts, but most such alternatives would be dependent upon wholesale abandonment of the SINGO model, in particular its idealistic values and aspirations; such change or reform would constitute abolition and supersession of the SINGO, rather than reform and revitalisation. Yet most constructive change emerges from a pivotal and sometimes complex dynamic of the reassuringly familiar and the exciting but threateningly new.

In his book Life Chances, a series of essays exploring approaches to social and political theory, Ralf Dahrendorf (Dahrendorf, 1979: 30-31) talks of the life chances of individuals, and even societies, as opportunities for growth. By life chances he means the opportunities that arise in the relation between two elements, options and ligatures. Options are “possibilities of choice, or alternatives of action”; ligatures are “allegiances “, though “one might call them bonds or linkages as well”. Ligatures signify meaning, he adds; options emphasize the “horizon of action”.Unless we are talking of the obliteration of all (established) meaning, a transformative revolution in the true sense of both those words, forms of change – including in and by organizations – must strike a balance between the defensibly meaningful (from past and present practice) and the accessibly new as perceived in a realistically open future.

Let’s think the unlikely then. Could FIFA become a self-reforming body, an agent of its own future credibility, so ensuring that the likes of the Havelange-Blatter FIFA Dynasty (HBFD, see Sugden and Tomlinson, 2017) can never again corral power and control for self-serving and self-aggrandizing purposes? Are the ethical processes in place at FIFA adequate to meet the demands of such a daunting challenge? Many believe FIFA to be irreparably broken, but such beliefs are widely based on handed-down knowledge rather than sustained scrutiny and rigorous analysis, and the impossibility of genuine reform of FIFA has become a default position of the media, the commentariat and the public during the final sordid Blatter years. In such a context, a closer look at FIFA practices and ethics can inform analysis and evaluation of FIFA’s capacity to reform and change.

Ethics and institutional/organizational responsibility

Put simply, the terms “ethics/ethical” refer to those principles and criteria according to which an organization judges and justifies its practices and procedures, particularly in terms of broadly agreed moral commitments to how one should function with regard to accepted roles and responsibilities. In the UK the standards expected of people in public life were framed by the government’sCommittee on Standards in Public Life (the Nolan Committee) and published in 1995. “Public” in this sense referred primarily to holders of public office, and the principles were not claimed to embrace all dimensions of organizational or institutional practice, though one might argue that they should be used in the evaluation of the performance of voluntary organisations if not private sector institutions. The seven principles proposed by the Nolan Committee are: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. The final principle carries with it the expectation that people can and should embody all of the preceding principles, in challenging inappropriate behaviour at whatever level and in whatever context.

There is little to argue against in this worthy list. But any degree of familiarity with everyday organizational life raises questions concerning the applicability of the principles. Openness and honesty are undermined by institutional power relations, strained and constrained as they are by personal and individual concerns with status and stability. It hardly takes deep ethnographic immersion in an organization to note the pragmatics of leadership that frequently trump adherence to the principles. And accountability, objectivity, integrity and selflessness are certainly expected from organizational members and personnel, but the question of how such principles are built into an institutional or organizational culture rather than imposed from above or merely uttered as “lip-service” to ideals, remains a recurrent and central one when evaluating the efficacy of organizational ethics. Nevertheless, as writers in the sphere of the ‘new public diplomacy’as applied to multifarious categories of international organisation, have observed: “International companies operating in a global marketplace are now also facing up to their social and ethical responsibilities, and their public diplomacy policies are slowly but surely becoming more sophisticated”. (Melissen, 2005: 12).

It has been argued too that a concern with power and politics as motors of organizational change in a free-market world sidelined ethical processes that were often concerned with democratic participation; but that such ethical concerns have begun, a decade in to the new century, to be recognized as more important than profit-maximization and self-interest (Burnes, 2009). Certainly, ethical codes are essential dimensions of any commitment to “social and ethical responsibilities”; here we look at two international companies: Autodesk (USA) and Nissan (Japan), before returning to the FIFA case.

Autodesk is a software company based in San Francisco but with a global network of operations. Carl Bass, CEO and president, writes, in a “message” introducing his company’s ethics code: “… we strive to conduct our business with the highest degree of honesty, integrity and ethical behavior … to build a challenging and fulfilling work environment that rewards teamwork and respects diverse work styles, lifestyles and cultural differences. (Autodesk, 2015: 2) In a comprehensive statement, inclusive in pitch, accessible and sincere in tone throughout its 30 pages, the ethics code is presented as more than an institutional irritation or an operational hurdle to be got over; it constitutes a practice, defines a collective culture.

Nissan, one of Japan’s top zaibatsu (these latter being the giant financial organizations and institutions of the country), offers its Nissan Group a Global Code of Conduct. There is no cheery welcome to this, and the single-page document opens with a thud rather than a spark: “The following standards apply to all employees in NISSAN group companies (collectively herein referred to as ‘Nissan’ or ‘Company’). Each member of the Company is charged with responsibility to uphold and extend this code of conduct.” (Nissan, undated). This is then followed by a list of eight ‘standards’, the first reminding all Nissan employees that they “will abide by all laws of the country, and all regulations of the Company, in which they work”.The contrast between the US West Coast statement and Japan’s manufacturing giant is revealing: Nissan’s code of conduct is a stern reminder – a warning – about how to behave, and is presented like a commandment from above, a tablet or scroll; Autodesk’s code of business conduct is a statement of beliefs linked to an ethos, a lifestyle, pitched more as an invitation to a cultural initiative than as a warning.

And so to FIFA, whose 2012 edition of its Code of Ethics (CoE), still its working model in 2017, runs to 60 pages, covering scope of application, substantive law, organization and procedure, and some final provisions. In the Preamble to the code, FIFA plays the predictable joker card from the SINGO pack, stating that “persons bound by this code” should show a respect for “the core value of fair play in every aspect of their functions” (FIFA, 2012: 6).Almost as an afterthought, such persons are reminded that they “shall assume social and environmental responsibility”.

Ethics, voice and the universal/particular tension

To adequately understand the ethics sphere as a battleground of ideas stimulating or hindering institutional or organizational change, a diversion into political cum philosophical debate is required, including a focus upon the universalist and particularist dimensions of adopted ethics stances. Following van den Anker, universalism is based on a view that “judgements in ethics should be made according to universal principles which hold for all lives and in all situations” (van den Anker, 1999: 139). Such principles, in scope, are conducive to an overarching cosmopolitanism, and are compatible with the stance of a universal moral theory, applicable to all (a contemporary form of Kantian generalization; in Immanuel Kant’s thought, morals and ethics stand apart from the particularities of place and time, undiluted by the inconveniences of empirical reality). In a world of globalizing tendencies the application of normative statements of behavioural conduct –such as for instance the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, articulated in 1948 and presented to the world at a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris, France – are issued on behalf of the totality of humankind, despite their provenance as a weltanschauung, or world view, of an alliance of victorious superpowers. In such contexts the winners speak for all, claiming the moral right to assert their views as principles appropriate to adoption by the whole of humankind; the defeated, the neutral, the absent as well as the power-wielding and world-shaping victors. As multinational and transnational organizations have adopted policies embracing human rights, developed codes of ethics, and claimed the relevance of rights and ethics to organizational credibility and institutional responsibility across the globe, they have – intentionally or not, implicitly if not explicitly – adopted a universalist stance. When pressurized into establishing ethical processes in FIFA, the then president Sepp Blatter could claim it as a universalist initiative that would steer FIFA through the turbulent waters of corruption allegations and escalating levels of scandal in the first decade of the century throughout his presidential tenures.

Particularism is a different perspective, in which “actual practices or traditions of particular communities … rule out thecosmopolitan scope of the universalists” (ibid.). Those with no direct experience of World War 2, or from countries – on either the losing or winning side – that had no direct involvement in the framing of the 1948 “universal” declaration, have questioned its validity and place in a world order half a century removed from its inception, and disputed the universalism of the initiative; such critics are more concerned with the particular, cultural values of their own community, and consequent issues of cultural and political identity. FIFA’s Blatter, proudly describing his universalist initiative to the world, could dismiss individual cases of corruption as instances of the proverbial “bad egg”, claiming on numerous occasions that he could not be expected to keep an eye on every corner of the football world and that such responsibilities should fall under the jurisdiction of national bodies or less global associations such as the continental federations recognized by FIFA. [2]When the allegations arrived on his own doorstep, his own practices showing a particularist strand to his financial management and decision-making in his verbal arrangement with UEFA president and long-term protégé Michel Platini, his time was up. The Kantian veneer was exposed by the Machiavellian dealings characterizing his own practices, his“particularist” way of doing business with a long-term crony. It is this contradiction to which I will return in the concluding discussion, after consideration of some wider institutional features of FIFA germane to the organization’s modus operandi whilst in the controlling hands of the HBFD.

FIFA ethics: Framework, farce and fear


The context and circumstances of presidential power in FIFA are vital to an understanding of the ways of working of the organization. Three characteristics stand out as particularly important for contextualizing a critical understanding of the case, and so underpinning the emergent argument: i) The longevity of presidential tenure, as already mentioned: Brazilian Havelange 1974-1998; Swiss Blatter 1998-2015; ii) FIFA/SINGO accountability: FIFA is accountable only to its Congress and its Statutes, granting one member (national association) one vote. Vanuatu therefore has as much power in Congress as does, say, Germany. This is the perfect recipe for leaders to establish a model of clientelism; iii) Unquestioned deference: the president has been, during the years of the Blatter presidency, described in internal documentation as the “Supreme Leader”. These characteristics, along with others, have combined to produce a compliant, deferential culture of fear and silence.

This is anchored too in the organizational structure itself. Under Swiss law, FIFA is:“an association registered in the Commercial Register in accordance with … the Swiss Civil Code” on Associations, “with a political, religious, scientific, cultural, charitable, social or other non-commercial purpose”.In line with the Civil Code, and as stated in Article 2 of its Statutes: “FIFA’s objective is to improve the game of football constantly and promote it globally, particularly through youth and development programmes. FIFA is a non-profit organization and is obliged to spend its reserves for this purpose … The non-profit character of FIFA and the four-year accounting cycle are thereby taken into account”. (FIFA Financial Report 2010).

FIFA’s mission is to “develop the game, touch the world, build a better future”, its slogan embodying its claimed global rationale: “For the Game. For the World”. To accomplish this mission, it boasts that: “Our core values of authenticity, unity, performance and integrity are at the very heart of who we are”(Tomlinson, 2014: 27).


FIFA’s Independent Ethics Committee is one of the organization’s “judicial bodies”, established in 2004 along with a developing Code of Ethics (CoE). The committee was restructured in 2012, subdividing into an Investigative Chamber and an Adjudicatory Chamber, each with an independent chair (FIFA, 2017).  FIFA had had disciplinary processes in place for many years, but these were seen to be applicable to players and match officials rather than administrators of confederations or FIFA committee members or employees.  From the 2012 restructuring, up to January 2017, the Ethics Committee investigated and banned from the game around 50 officials/personnel from around the world, from periods from a few months to life; these included Blatter himself, the UEFA president Michel Platini, and FIFA’s general secretary Jérome Vâlcke. The Chambers/Committee can hardly be accused of standing by collusively as revelations of FIFA corruption and scandal multiplied. Two ethics issues summarized below show how the need for such a committee was made clear by scandal and allegation in the earlier years of Blatter’s presidency, but alsoillustrate the feebleness of the Committee’s deliberations when faced withcontroversial issues or in relation to high-profile individuals.

Two cases

For illustrative purposes around which to make the central argument, this section cross-references and summarizes some of my previously published work on ethical crises and breaches at FIFA in the periods2002-2010. [3]The first case predates the introduction of the ethics committee but highlights the nature of institutional dynamics after dissenting voices have been marginalized or silenced. The second case highlights the absurdity of the FIFA/SINGO ethics model through the examination of the place of a top politician in the state apparatus of the Russian Federation, Vitaly Mutko, whose role as Vladimir Putin’s sporting tsar in Olympic and international football circles had never, at least up until the beginning of 2017, faced questioning or scrutiny by FIFA’s ethics investigators.

  1. The ExCo move against Blatter [4]

In May 2002 almost half of the members of FIFA’s Executive Committee produced a document alleging multiple cases of criminal conduct by Blatter in his presidential position. This was thirteen years before the police swooped on the Baur du Lac hotel in Zurich to indict 14 FIFA-connected individuals at FIFA. The organization was, as Blatter was campaigning to win his second term as president, hovering on the edge of bankruptcy and the “FIFA Executive Committee’s requests for information were either ignoredor put off or fobbed off with global statements to the effect that the FIFA was in perfect financial health”.Blatter was accused “of keeping secret the financial situation of FIFA and his own financial machinations”.

The Criminal Complaint went on to catalogue a range of financial irregularities and structural dysfunctions: payment to individuals for bogus services for vague and unspecified work; the buying of information that could compromise critics or opponents; support for lobbying of national associations or campaigning for FIFA elections; contracts gifted to FIFA committee members or favoured partners; debt clearance for some confederations and individuals; and payments without explanation or rationale to national associations. (Tomlinson, 2014: 139). Just weeks later on 29 May 2002 Blatter was re-elected, 139 votes to 56, an increase on his majority in 1998 when he gained 111 to Johansson’s 80. The Criminal Complaint was supported by documentation including a report, by the then General Secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen, that had been presented to the FIFA Executive Committee (ExCo). In essence, the documentation accused FIFA’s president of dishonest management and breach of trust, citing appropriate articles/clauses of the Swiss Criminal Code, claiming that“the Accused misused FIFA assets entrusted to his care for the benefit of third parties and thereby for his own benefit, in order to consolidate his personal position of power”.In a nutshell, then, the Criminal Complaint states a strong and well-evidenced legal case against Blatter (extensive files of corroborating evidence were submitted alongside the Complaint, though these have never been made public). This was in May 2002, when, to reiterate, FIFA finances looked to be on the verge of bankruptcy, when KPMG auditors had actually questioned the veracity of financial reporting on income and assets, and when Blatter had not yet seen through his first presidential cycle. Criminal mismanagement of another’s resources; unlawful use and/or misappropriation of another’s assets:the Criminal Complaint brought the weight of the Swiss Criminal Code to bear in the case against Blatter.

But at the FIFA Congress in Seoul, South Korea, at the end of that month, the FIFA Congress re-elected Blatter as President, deflecting the biggest systematic internal challenge to his authority, confirming the magic formula of powerbroking and powerkeeping in FIFA: keep your core constituency – for Blatter, in particular the national associations far from the heart of UEFA’s power in Western Europe – happy in one-to-one relationships of patronage and mutual flattery, and the internecine conflicts of central FIFA committees could remain a mere sideshow. General Secretary Zen-Ruffinen, who had drawn up much of the evidence for the Criminal Complaint, was soon off the FIFA payroll, consigned to paid-off silence and an uncertain professional future. [5]The voices of challenge were silenced by Blatter, and those who wished to continue to speak out found themselves shorn of responsibility or moved to low-status peripheral committee positions.

  1. Putin’s Placeman [6]

In the last five years of Blatter’s regime, Qatar dominated the headlinesin the corruption debate, following the 2010 decision to award two men’s World Cups at once, to Russia for 2018, and to Qatar for 2022. In the internal FIFA ethics probe into the bids, in a farcical “redacted” dilution of the Investigatory Chamber’s long report, the Adjudicatory Chamber found no serious flaws in the processes of the bidders. (Tomlinson, 2017: 259-261).   In the wider world across the global media, though, human rights issues, labour exploitation, the absurdity of FIFA’scareless consideration of the bids (in terms of infrastructure and climate) all made Qatar an easy target. Russia though was barely discussed. A first World Cup finals tournament in the world’s largest country, and its ninth most populous, for the first generation of its post-communist transformation, fits the FIFA globalizing mission of spreading the infrastructure of the game, confirming the reach of the game across the globe; “We go to new lands” as Blatter put it: “Never has the World Cup been in Russia and Eastern Europe, and the Middle East and Arabic world has been waiting a long time. So I’m a happy president when we talk about the development of football”. Blatter was talking to Reuters following the announcement of the decision in Zurich in December 2010. The Qatar decision soon dominated the headlines, but there was an air of inevitability about the Russian success, particularly in the later phases of the bidding process: the Insight team at The Sunday Times claimed that the England 2018 bidding team“paid private security companies to sweep its own offices regularly for bugs after being informed that Russia had installed a permanent surveillance unit in London to spy on its activities”; and the journalists’ex-MI6 source said: ‘“What you need to remember about this is the way this was done in Russia is that nothing was written down. Don’t expect me or anyone else to produce a document with Putin’s signature saying please X bribe Y with this amount in this way. He’s not going to do that.’He explained: ‘Putin is an ex intelligence officer. Everything he does has to be deniable.’He said that the deals with voters ‘would have been strategic level but not state to state because of the need for deniability. That’s why the oligarchs were brought in’. He added: ‘Sochi was a complete pig’s trough in terms of corruption and the World Cup is five times as big.’”(Blake and Calvert, 2014: Sections 4.9 and 6.2).

The country’s President, Vladimir Putin, was speedily en route to Switzerland at the December 2010 vote to mark the outcome. In the celebrating party he would reunite with Vitaly Mutko, the Russian Federation’s Minister of Sport, Tourism and Youth Policy from 2008until a promotion to Deputy Prime Minister in October 2016; and Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea Football Club in London. Russia had looked like they were certain winners from early on in the process, and winning the 2018 event was a form of coronation, an affirmation of all the background work undertaken over the previous few years. This had included the rapid career advancement of Mutko, and his simultaneous entry onto FIFA’s global stage. Whilst many have questioned the processes whereby Qatar secured the vote to host the 2022 event, less attention has been paid to this Russian triumph in the lobbying stakes. The contribution of Vitaly Mutko to this triumph, through the way in which his career intertwined the politics of the Russian Federation and the politics of FIFA, was vital. He gained a place on FIFA’s Executive Committee and as a Minister of the Russian Federation represented the Russian bid for 2018 at all stages of the process, brazenly voting for his home country in complete disregard of FIFA’s ethics criteria on neutrality and conflict of interests.

In the sixth section of FIFA’s ethics code “persons bound by this Code” are asked to think about theirconduct towards government and private organizations: “In dealings with government institutions, national and international organisations, associations and groupings, officials shall … remain politically neutral, in accordance with the principles and objectives of FIFA, the confederations, associations, leagues and clubs, and generally act in a manner compatible with their function and integrity” (FIFA, 2012: 15). [7]Mutko’s dealings as a Russian politician, on his journey towards his membership of the FIFA ExCo, were as far removed from political neutrality as one could imagine.

The SINGO-generated links at local, regional, national, and international level can secure deal-making facilitated by the likes of the Russian president and his placeman, helped along by the ethical neutrality and neglect of the latter’s peers in the FIFA hierarchy. In July 2016 Minister Mutko, as Richard McLaren, the Canadian lawyer called him, was further damned in the WADA-commissioned report on Russia’s state-run doping programme: Mutko’s ministry effectively ran the doping cover-ups in Russia’s disgraced anti-doping laboratories, as reaffirmed in McLaren’s second report(McLaren, 2016b); Mutko also personally ordered the doctoring of a foreign footballer’s urine sample, making the decision to cover up this player’s use of banned substances(McLaren, 2016a: 38). In late 2016, Minister Mutko was removed from his ministerial position by Putin, elevated to a newly-created position of Deputy Prime Minister in the Russian Federation. One can only conclude that no-one has been concerned – or courageous -enough within FIFA to question Mutko’s position, to alert the Ethics Committee and its Chambers to the need to interrogate Mutko’s strikingly obvious conflicts of interest in the conduct of his FIFA responsibilities.Fear was the order of the day, not integrity. FIFA’s scrutiny of Mutko in March 2017 adjudged him, though, to be ineligible for re-election onto the main FIFA committee, now the FIFA Council, due to a conflict of interests stemming from his political status. Mutko merely shrugged his shoulders: “I wanted to get re-elected but FIFA has changed its criteria. A new criterion has been introduced: political neutrality”. [8]FIFA had of course done nothing of the sort; the criterion, as shown above, was always prominent and unambiguous. In March 2017 then it looked as if FIFA’s decision-makers may be less timid than in Blatter’s prime. But this was not worrying Mutko; by now no-one was going to take World Cup 2018 away from Russia, he was elevated to Deputy Prime Minister and able to muse that everything that Putin had wanted from him had been delivered.

Nevertheless, the pressure mounted on Mutko in December 2017 when the former president of the Swiss Confederation, Samuel Schmid, chair of an IOC Disciplinary Commission Report, submitted a damning document concluding that though no direct evidence of the individual involvement of top state officials in the Russian doping scandal could be corroborated, Mutko, as Minister, must be held responsible: “As leading the Ministry of Sport, the then Russian Minister had the ultimate administrative responsibility for the acts perpetrated at the time within the Russian Ministry or the entities under its responsibility”. (IOC, 2017: Section 3.2 [9], p. 26). The IOC responded with a lifetime ban for Mutko, who soon relinquished his role as chief of the World Cup organizing committee and also stepped down (temporarily, it was announced) as head of Russia’s national football association, the Russian Football Union.

Mutko retained his position as Deputy Prime Minister after Vladimir Putin’s re-election as the country’s president in March 2018, though no longer with responsibility for sport. Within weeks of Putin’s victory, announcement of his new brief to a meeting of legal personnel of the ruling United Russia party provoked mocking laughter (Reuters, 2018); this brief, to oversee construction and regional politics, took him out of the limelight as the World Cup approached. Infrastructural construction across regions, it must be added, has long been a sphere of self-aggrandizement for those with the power to shape policy and dispense contracts, and has also offered innumerable oligarchs in the post-Soviet era the opportunity to secure unprecedented levels of personal wealth.

FIFA and the HBFD: An end-of-term report

Ethical misdemeanours of individuals within the rather obscure committee structures and practices of FIFA provided little initial rivalry to the dramatic headlines generated by the indictments of the US Department of Justice and the FBI in May 2015. Those indicted were predominantly from two continental federations, CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, those bodies recognised by FIFA with particular responsibilities for the governance of the game in the Americas and the Caribbean, CONCACAF for North and Central America and the Caribbean, CONMEBOL for South America. But within several months of those indictments Sepp Blatter found himself ambushed by his own organization and para-judicial procedures, initially suspended by his own Ethics Committee in October 2015, a decision reaffirmed on 21stDecember 2015 when Blatter and Platini were each handed 8-year bans by the adjudicatory chamber. It has not been revealed from what source the materials emerged that led to the investigation leading to these decisions/bans, but the increased number of people called to account for their malpractices on FIFA business was creating the proverbial House of Cards effect at the Home of FIFA. Choosing loyalty to the ideals of FIFA, and looking too to retain the privileges of position, status and remuneration within the organization, more voices were ready to be heard. This could also be read as a defence of FIFA itself, as should such charges not be levied against particular individuals, FIFA itself as an organizational actor could have been indicted for charges made under the US’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt OrganizationAct (RICO). [9]

The Daniels Fund Ethics Initiative at the University of Colorado’s Denver-based Business School (University of Colorado, 2016) has proposed that eight ethical principles should inform institutional and organizational philosophies and practice in the contemporary world, across public, private and voluntary sectors. These are integrity, trust, accountability, transparency, fairness, respect, rule of law, and viability. From what we know, how could Blatter’s FIFA, the racketeering enterprise cornered by the FBI and the US Department of Justice, possibly score more than 25% (perhaps for the last two) on this examination paper? And even that seems unrealistically high and generous a mark for the HBFD regime. And from what we know, how can a universalist commitment to ethics and rights be taken seriously as a credible remedy to the FIFA flaws?

In his book Exit, Voice and Loyalty(1970), Albert O. Hirschman argued that organizational failings are found out by management when those they manage exercise either an exit option, whereby they leave, or a voice option, whereby dissatisfaction is expressed directly to management orsome other appropriate authority. Exit is neat, in that“one either exits or one does not,” whereas voice is far more messy, and can include anything from “faintgrumbling to violent protest”’ (p. 175).If we are to consider the viability of FIFA’s ethics committee as an agent of change, several core questions must continue to be asked, adapting Hirschman’s categories. Which voices prevail in organizational dynamics and institutional politics, and when?How are exit paths negotiated or utilised? Are forms of loyalty within/to flawed organizations an insurmountable barrier to internal reform, and therefore, in the case of the SINGO, a block on the potential transformation of governance?

Conclusion: a fair and ethically credible FIFA?

If the SINGO principles of a more idealistic bent can be preserved in a structurally and culturally reformed model of organization and practice, with the power of the president curtailed by the checks and balances of a more transparent and accountable administrative structure, the possibility exists that the SINGO can survive and even restore credibility to its destroyed reputation. It is a possibility, dependent upon the robustness of some of the principles that characterised the SINGO’s growth, the continuing commitment of those who were not among the corrupt, and upon the consistent curbing of the power of those who might abuse the privilege of high position. Some elements of ligature could be dropped – deference to the president for instance, silence bordering on collusion at different levels of the organizational hierarchy – in structural reform and transformation of the organizational culture. If we imagine the SINGO as an institutional actor in its wider social world, it is not then beyond possibility that the SINGO could in the future be seen to have adapted at a particularly critical moment in the one and a half centuries of SINGO history, re-establishing and even securing its place in the trans-national world order and establishing a basis for its own continuing historical relevance and significance. If a balance between the elements of the ligature and options is not attained, the SINGO will continue to sink into the dirty waters of its own making, historically eclipsed and becoming a mere footnote in the wider history of global sporting culture. It is incontestable that central to the chances of reforming and indeed transforming FIFA and other similarly tarnished SINGOs is the credible operation of the organization’s ethics processes and procedures. But it is here that we run into a potentially chronic condition of the SINGO, a contradiction that appears unresolvable.

The FIFA mission and the idealist rhetoric that is employed as a form of transhistorical rationale is fundamentally universalist, cosmopolitan in conception and implementation. FIFA and its practices though (including across the FIFA “enterprise”, as the US Department of Justice and the FBI worded it) are essentially particularist, or at least recognize the validity of particularism, rendering everyday practices at events across FIFA’s worldwide brief as open to interpretation, conducive to reinterpretation, abuse and corruption. This leads to the inevitable conclusion that FIFA’s mission and morals/values are locked in a ruthlessly exploited contradiction that has been – or has been seen to be –  beyond the reach of national or any international law – until the US intervention and its use of the RICO act to indict FIFA-related personnel for money-laundering, racketeering and fraud.

Genuine reform calls for deep and extensive changes. John G. Ruggie (2016), in an adaptation of his UN human rights policy to the FIFA case, made 25 recommendations covering three areas of change: FIFA must movefrom constitution to culture, from reactive to proactive ways of working, and from insularity to accountability in is relationship with outside bodies. Such changes would be genuinely transformative, but may need generations of committed reform and practice.Ethics and the mobilization of voice(s) will be vital to any chance of achieving such change at/in FIFA. And even then this may not be enough to tackle the core contradiction that has shaped FIFA’s morally deficient modus operandi and rendered it a “RICO enterprise” vulnerable to racketeering fraudstersfor whom the universalist idealism of the SINGO was little more than a cover for ruthless self-aggrandizement. But FIFA is not alone in this quandary. It is one of many SINGOs that is institutionally vulnerable to such exploitation and abuse, all but trapped in the competing forces and tendencies of universalism and particularism.



Allison, Lincoln and Tomlinson, Alan (2017) Understanding International Sport Organisations: Principles, Power and Possibilities(London and New York: Routledge).

Autodesk (2015) Code of Business Conduct, June 2015.

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[1]This piece is an extended version of Alan Tomlinson, “FIFA: Ethics, voice and organisational power plays”, published as Chapter 9 of Carter et al., 2018: 121-135. I am grateful too to the University of Colorado (Denver) Business School for its invitation to contribute to the Daniels Fund Ethics initiative on 4 November 2015; and to the North American Society for the Sociology of Sport, for the opportunity to present a version of the argument at its annual conference in Tampa, Florida, on 4 November 2016.

[2]Blatter always had a strong view on this point. In March 2017 at least four candidates for the elections onto the core committee of CAF, the African Football Confederation, had previously served bans for bribery, faced embezzlement charges in their own country, or failed a FIFA integrity test. (Hills, 2017: 8). Can one organization – FIFA – aspire to reform all its 211 member national associations? Obviously not, though this pragmatic stance does not excuse the need to monitor the practices and finances of partners, in particular those receiving benefits and resources from FIFA.


[3]See Tomlinson, 2014; Tomlinson, 2015; Allison and Tomlinson, 2017; Tomlinson, 2017; and Sugden and Tomlinson, 2017.

[4]This subsection draws upon Tomlinson, 2014, pp. 132-133.

[5]Zen-Ruffinen would re-emerge as a consultant advising World Cup bidders on their strategies, see Blake and Calvert, pp. 222ff.


[6]This subsection draws upon Tomlinson, 2015; Tomlinson, 2017; and Allison and Tomlinson, 2017.

[7]This passage was on p. 6 of the 2010 edition of the Code, though “officials” was used at that time, replaced by “persons” in the 2012 revised edition.

[8] BBC, “Vitaly Mutko: Russian deputy PM barred from Fifa re-election bid”, 10 March 2017, online.


[9]On the origins and reach of the RICO act see Pearson, 2013.


AT, 6/06/2018