What the FIFA Scandal Can Teach Us About Sports and Global Governance


John Hoberman is a professor of Germanic studies at The University of Texas at Austin who teaches courses about sports and politics. He is the author of The Olympic Crisis: Sport, Politics, and the Moral Order.

The sensational bribing scandal and the fall from power of former FIFA president Joseph (Sepp) Blatter has amazed the world. Following the implosion of FIFA’s ruling circle have come the demands for reform. But who has the lawful authority and the political traction to reshape a globe-girdling sports federation whose executives enjoy an autonomy comparable with that of the pope in the Vatican?

As the FIFA struggle has made clear, dislodging sports officials from their bureaucratically entrenched positions is a very difficult assignment. Even FIFA, awash in blatant malfeasance over a period of many years, seemed invulnerable until American authorities got their hooks into the paper trail of evidence. Those who now propose to reform FIFA must embrace the standards of an anti-corruption group.

But the deeper lesson of the FIFA story is that there is nothing harder than governance and regulation in anything that’s global. From oceanic fish stocks to carbon emissions to doping drugs to self-serving behaviors of arrogant sports officials, global regulation is a challenge. After all, Lance Armstrong’s protectors ran the International Cycling Federation from 1999 to 2013. It was a first in the history of global sport when its ruling circle lost power to reformers by a fair voting process in 2013. Had this narrow vote gone the other way, the compromised leadership would still be in charge of investigating.

You could argue that conserving fish protein and slowing sea-level rise are infinitely more important than the integrity of global sport and, in this case, world soccer, but it is the show-business internationalism of sports that creates the tabloid effect that gets the world’s attention. So now that the world is paying attention, what can it learn?

One lesson we can take from the FIFA debacle is that an international organization that goes wrong requires outside intervention despite its statutory rules and protestations of independence. When a ship hits a reef, certain captains insist that their skills are required to avert further disaster. That is how the leaders of global sports bodies think. That is what the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) said when a bribery scandal hit him in 1999. And that is how Sepp Blatter was talking before he left his FIFA presidency in a hurry. We must recognize that “offshore” international organizations can profess humane and cosmopolitan values but be run by cliques of opportunists and crooks.

The first step after FIFA’s collapse should be administrative reforms that drive the slogan-mongering and power-hungry opportunists such as Sepp Blatter out of global sport. This should include a Charter of Principles for Global Sport that denies World Cup competitions to dictatorships that commit blatant human rights abuses. The 2018 and 2022 World Cups assigned to Russia and Qatar should be revoked, whether or not the suspected bribes to acquire them were paid. Global sporting events should require minimum standards of conduct for the governments that want these festivals.

Reform also means abolishing the “democratic” voting procedure that allowed Blatter to buy entire blocs of votes with “sports development” funding. The new FIFA management should hire an audit group such as Transparency International to design and audit FIFA’s financial operations while the global media look on.

The key to acquiring and retaining power in global sport is to convince the world that your sport is a benefit to mankind. The genius of the IOC has been to present itself as a peace movement. FIFA’s special ploy has been to push the idea that FIFA and its legions around the world are “a family” that encourages global harmony. Great sports rackets such as the IOC and FIFA have long capitalized on magical thinking about the power of sports to “bring people together.” But with reforms, FIFA and other global sports groups could not only bring people together but show the world how global governance can actually work.

Want to hear more from John Hoberman? In this interview with The Hookhe talks about the global and social impact of major sporting events.


Photo illustration by Melissa Reese.


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