Who's fit to fight corruption in soccer?

[MY VIEW] Last week the Polish government sacked the leadership of the country's Football Association (PZPN), accusing it of a failure to address corruption issues. Soccer's world governing body, FIFA, and its European arm, UEFA, strongly disapprove of such interference, with the latter threatening to withdraw Poland's co-hosting rights to the 2012 European Championships. On Monday, Poland promptly reacted to a FIFA deadline to re-appoint everyone they'd sacked, and FIFA President Sepp Blatter declared himself a satisfied man.

When the murky arena of FIFA politics gets mixed up with the equally shadowy realm of real world politics, there's as much chance of truth and clarity as there is of Andorra meeting St. Kitts and Nevis in the World Cup final. While FIFA tries to insist that it is acting on a matter of principle by ruling that governments should not interfere in the running of national soccer associations, it obviously suits Blatter and his dubiously elected colleagues to have people in power in countries around the world whom they already know they can work with.

Polish soccer has been dogged for years by corruption scandals and match-fixing claims, going back far into the Communist era. The government already tried to suspend the PZPN officials once last year, and was forced by FIFA to retract. Why they have chosen now to try again, and why they thought FIFA would react differently, is anyone's guess. But whether the government is genuinely frustrated at the game's inability to clean up its act, or it is merely indulging in a spot of heavy-handed score settling, the "sack-the-lot" solution is not going to be allowed to work.

In general, it is clearly not in soccer's interest to have governments interfering in the game, and that is why FIFA has rules forbidding it. On the other hand, who would be naive enough to think that we can trust FIFA to root out and punish corruption within soccer? The stories of how brown envelopes, allegedly filled with cash, have influenced FIFA elections going back to Joao Havelange's elevation to FIFA President in 1974 have been well documented in books such as Andrew Jennings' 'Foul' and John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson's 'Badfellas: FIFA Family At War' (both highly recommended reading).

Blatter in the past has simply ignored the findings of FIFA's own grandly named Committee For Ethics and Fair Play, which found Concacaf President Jack Warner guilty of breaching the body's Ethics Code on three counts after he passed off Trinidad & Tobago's entire ticket allocation for the 2006 World Cup to his family's travel agency. Blatter and FIFA's executive committee did not discipline Warner. Blatter merely expressed his "disapproval" of Warner's conduct, and Warner went on to be re-elected unopposed to the Concacaf presidency a year later. So don't hold your breath waiting for FIFA to fly in a crack team of untainted anti-corruption investigators to Warsaw to knock a few heads together, unearth and punish the guilty, and set the country's soccer culture on a new and righteous path.

If a country's soccer structure is riddled to the core with corruption, a government is hamstrung from acting by FIFA's threats to disqualify it from international competition. FIFA itself is demonstrably unfit to police the game without inviting derision and charges of hypocrisy. That only leaves lengthy and expensive domestic judicial processes, presuming any given country has the necessary legal infrastructure, as well as the time and energy to tackle an issue such as match-fixing that will almost certainly not be close to a top priority. As happened in Italy in 2006, you need hard evidence and a strong will to proceed, and even then all guilty parties will continue to loudly proclaim their innocence and lodge multiple appeals against penalties until they are watered down to the level of a mild admonishment.

If only Blatter and his organization were in a position to act so swiftly and decisively on corruption in soccer as they do when issuing threats to national governments. But pigs do not, as a rule, run businesses sharpening butchers' knives.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications