Commentary

FIFA election campaigning, 9/11 and the Zika virus

At the end of the day, there aren't a whole lot of issues that will decide Friday's election for FIFA president.

It isn't like the telephones at federations around the world are ringing off the hook from players and coaches and referees and administrators weighing in on who to vote for. It's very much an insider's game with the heads of FIFA's 209 member associations (207 if Kuwait and Indonesia remain suspended) deciding what they think is in the best interests of their organizations. Which is too often what is in their own best interests. Or what they've been told is in the best interests of their confederations.

One of the few issues that separates the two frontrunners -- Gianni Infantino, the UEFA secretary general, and AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain -- is what to with FIFA's reserves of $1.5 billion.

Infantino came out in support of an aggressive plan to distribute FIFA's reserves:

-- $5 million for each federation to invest in development projects and running costs;
-- Another $1 million, if required, for travel;
-- $40 million for each confederation to invest in development projects;
-- Another $4 million, if necessary, to organize youth tournaments.

Sheikh Salman's position is that FIFA's financial situation is dire and it will deplete its reserves if the status quo continues and sales of FIFA's commercial rights don't pick up. "No serious person with a minimum of financial knowledge can nor should disregard these facts," he says. Sheikh Salman's position is to adopt a "needs-based" program for the distribution of development funds.

Who's right? The truth lies somewhere in between.

While much has been made of Infantino's spending manifesto, he prefaced his proposal by saying a “proper risk analysis must be conducted” before it is adopted. Infantino likes to tell federations that FIFA's money is their money, not his, but it would be foolish to hand over $1 billion just for the sake of -- well ...

The problem with Sheikh Salman's "needs-based" proposal is that it smacks of business as usual. The FIFA scandals -- the Federal indictments of May and December -- were largely centered on activities in Concacaf and Conmebol over which U.S. authorities could gain jurisdiction.

But that doesn't begin to address of allegations of rampant corruption in Asia and Africa stemming from, among other things, the activities of Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam, Sheikh Salman's predecessor as AFC president, in his 2011 FIFA presidential bid and Qatar's 2010 World Cup bid.

Bin Hammam derived his power from his position as chairman of FIFA's "Goal" development program, using pork-barrel politics, if you will, to lock in support for Sepp Blatter and most importantly for himself. Lots of "Goal" projects have done lots of good, but all too frequently critics charge that "goal" money has been wasted or misappropriated.

Just why does FIFA keep so much money in reserve? That part of the equation is never brought up when Infantino and Sheikh Salman discuss FIFA's pot of gold. Nor has FIFA ever done a good job of justifying its reserves.

In the last 15 years, since the collapse of marketing partners ISL and Kirch, FIFA has amassed huge profits as the market for TV rights to major events like the World Cup (most notably in the United States) has exploded. But after 9/11, FIFA's insurer, AXA, withdrew its $851 million policy for cancellation insurance.

FIFA must self-insure, keeping enough money aside -- approximately one-third  of FIFA’s total expenses over a World Cup cycle -- to protect itself from the loss of revenues (or the costs of lawsuits) if the World Cup, which accounts for 90 percent of FIFA's revenues, was ever canceled. Until recently, few would have ever considered that eventuality. But it is no joking matter.

Brazil's Olympic organizers are struggling how to respond to the Zika virus, a crisis FIFA and World Cup organizers missed by two years. No one is talking about canceling the Rio Olympics -- not yet -- but there's plenty of serious discussion about whether it is safe for athletes, coaches and delegations -- and fans -- to go to Brazil.

There are many reasons for Russia going all-in in the Syria war, but one of them is its fear that the Islamic State's war will spread to Russia, where Muslim minorities, most of them Sunnis, total 20 million, or more than 10 percent of the Russian population.

Just what would have happened if the Zika virus had hit in 2014 and it grew so out of control that the Brazil World Cup was canceled? Or a terrorist attack forced the cancellation of the Russia World Cup? We all want to shutter at the thought, but it's something that FIFA has to think about as it sets its financial strategies.
1 comment about "FIFA election campaigning, 9/11 and the Zika virus".
  1. Mary Helen Sprecher, February 23, 2016 at 8:12 a.m.

    You don't shutter at the thought, you shudder at the thought.

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