Fixing FIFA: Is a New Beginning Possible?

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The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 10 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “Beginning Again.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.

It was no great epiphany, even to Americans, to hear in recent weeks that FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, is corrupt right down to the ground. Most of us heard plenty about the FIFA’s corruption during last summer’s World Cup in Brazil (of course, the rest of the world has been aware of it for much longer). What was surprising, though, was the remarkable brazenness displayed by FIFA’s top officials in the face of widespread allegations of bribery and corruption.

As Ira Glass put it on This American Life, “Wow, you guys have really learned how to have a game face!” With fourteen of his colleagues indicted and several arrested, FIFA president Sepp Blatter stood up in the opening ceremony of the FIFA Congress and said, with impressive chutzpah, “We, or I, cannot monitor everyone all of the time. If people want to do wrong, they will also try to hide it.” It took real insolence to say that in front of a room full of people who knew perfectly well that it was hogwash—roughly on the level of a 3 year old, crayon in hand, denying that she scribbled on the wall.

There’s a difference between the spiritual death we participate in as Christians and the kinds of changes and sacrifices necessary for political and organizational reform. It’s the difference between life in God’s kingdom and life in the kingdom of the world.

Blatter’s reelection as president the very next day was the confirmation no one needed that FIFA does indeed have a massive corruption problem. Even with the crushing weight of evidence against him, Blatter still held enough sway over FIFA’s constituents to force (or cow) Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, his lone challenger, out of contention. Those watching in hopes of change were flabbergasted. The collective disgusted sigh was audible. The old regime had supported itself. Even the fear of an imminent reckoning wasn’t enough to break up FIFA’s inbred and ingrained culture of quid pro quo.

In his re-election speech, Blatter spoke blithely of reform: “I thank you that you have accepted me for the next four years. I will be in command of this boat called FIFA. We will bring it back . . . I take the responsibility to bring back FIFA. I’m convinced we can do it.”

Three days later, Blatter resigned as FIFA’s president. What exactly tipped him over the edge is still unclear, but as the FBI’s investigation progresses and several of Blatter’s own former colleagues have made plea bargains, it’s not hard to guess.

Sepp Blatter’s resignation and the FBI’s ongoing investigation, though, are not enough to fix FIFA. Its problems run much deeper. They are rooted not only in FIFA’s own organizational culture, but also in the cultures of the countries that support it. The reason Blatter and other FIFA officials have been so laughably brazen in the past is that their power hasn’t depended on public opinion, but on their political alliances and on FIFA’s independence from any independent governing body.

As Richard Whittall put it in a recent New Yorker article, “Headline-grabbing indictments and extraditions are not enough to save FIFA; they must be followed by a long, boring to-do list of best practices for good governance.” That kind of long-term reform will require a change to the very culture of FIFA and then long years’ worth of plodding, unsexy work by individuals committed to the betterment of soccer, not their own interests. As Whittall quipped, “Though miracles can and often do happen in soccer, that would almost certainly trump them all.”

Sepp Blatter, of course, is just the capstone of an entire corrupt pyramid. The frontrunner to replace Blatter, Michel Platini, has been scrutinized for his involvement in Qatar’s now-infamous 2022 World Cup bid (more on that in a minute). And there is even speculation that Blatter might renege on his resignation. Remember, 133 of FIFA’s 209 member associations voted for Blatter when he was up for re-election—that doesn’t sound like disgruntled underlings ready to revolt. Remember, too, that these are the same constituencies that will have to vote on any changes to FIFA’s structure down the road.

Indeed, Blatter himself is quite popular in many parts of the world, both for the money he has helped bring to FIFA and for his support of smaller soccer nations in Africa and Asia. Blatter’s presidency has been characterized by his genius for expanding FIFA’s markets and advertising revenues. As the pie has grown bigger and bigger, more and more people have gotten a slice, especially in countries where bribery and corruption are simply accepted as the way things are done. As Jonathan Wilson put it in the New Statesman, “If FIFA is to be reformed, the western nations that have targeted Blatter have to understand why he remained so popular, in some quarters, to the end.”

And lest you think FIFA is just a lot of rich people greasing each other’s palms and wrecking the integrity of the world’s most popular sport, consider the situation in Qatar. Qatar won the 2022 bid to host the World Cup, FIFA’s (and world sports’) biggest event. That FIFA officials were bribed is, at this point, a foregone conclusion. (Many of the bribery allegations currently under investigation by the FBI are related to the Qatar bid.) And bribery makes sense, because hosting a World Cup in Qatar is a ludicrous proposition. Summer temperatures in Qatar regularly reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which would put players and fans alike in serious physical danger. The latest proposed solution has been to move the World Cup to the winter, which would interfere with the rest of the world’s soccer leagues and make a lot of other rich people very upset.

Much more troubling, though, are the human rights violations already going on in Qatar, as the nation scrambles to build the kind of infrastructure necessary to host an event like the World Cup. ESPN’s E:60 series ran an expose on the working conditions in Qatar, and its findings were truly horrifying. The workers, mostly migrants from Nepal, India, and Bangladesh, are being paid significantly less than they were initially promised, and with their passports confiscated, they can’t leave. An estimated 1,200 workers have already died from the appalling living conditions and overexposure in Qatar’s cruel heat, and if things don’t change, a projected 4,000 more will die before the tournament starts. Qatari and FIFA officials alike have ignored calls for reform. It remains to be seen whether the recent shakeup in FIFA’s leadership will change the situation in Qatar.

Blatter’s hollow promises of reform in his re-election speech didn’t fool anyone, least of all the room full of his cronies. But the language of reform is ubiquitous in our society, and it’s something to consider. We hear it regularly: For every corrupt institution, there’s someone who wants to reform it and who has lots of ideas for how it ought to be done. We’re promised reform in our government, in our financial institutions, and in our churches. It’s all too easy to throw around the language of reform—of beginning again. It sounds so good to us because we want to believe it so badly.

In practice, though, it’s not so simple. In an interview with Marc Maron last week on the WTF podcast, President Obama talked about the possibility of change in society. The expectation of large-scale reform, he said, is unrealistic. Instead, he said,

Sometimes the task of government is to make incremental improvements—to try to steer the ocean liner two degrees north or south—so that ten years from now, suddenly we’re in a very different place than we were. But at the moment people may feel like, “We need a fifty-degree turn, we don’t need a two-degree turn.” But you can’t turn fifty degrees. . . . Societies don’t turn fifty degrees. . . . As long as they’re turning in the right direction, and we’re making progress, the government is working sort of the way it’s supposed to.

Taken at face value, of course, that’s just common sense and a good reminder for those of us hoping that the right policy change, or the right person in office, can come along and whip things into shape. As the President reminded us, societies just don’t work that way.

President Obama’s comments, though, open up the bigger question of what reform is and where it comes from. How possible is the kind of long-term progress President Obama is hoping for in our complex and contingent global society? Given the kind of corruption we’re accustomed to in our most powerful institutions, many people would say that it isn’t possible at all. Everyone seems to be looking to get ahead and to use the system to their own advantage. So we grow cynical as we realize that change—so glibly promised by politicians—simply isn’t possible in the way it’s been presented.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not possible at all. It’s just not possible on those terms: on the popular assumption that we’re all basically goodhearted people and that if we can put aside our petty differences and pull in the same direction, real change is possible. The President demonstrated this assumption in the same interview:

The American people are overwhelmingly good, decent, generous people. Everybody that I meet believes in a lot of the same things. They believe in the some of those same virtues my mom taught me: They believe in honesty, family, community and looking out for one another.

This is political rhetoric, of course, but it’s also an assumption that our culture has internalized deeply, and we struggle to reconcile it with the reality of, for example, corrupt institutions that couldn’t care less about the people they crush in their inexorable pursuit of their own ends. For change to happen, those ends have to change. In FIFA’s case, that means a lot of people will have to resist the temptation to use their positions of power to further their own interests and work instead for the good of the sport and of the communities and cultures the sport affects.

In the language of the Bible, such selflessness is a kind of death—death to the self and its corrupted desires. For reform to happen, we have to be willing to die. Often—as in political revolution, for instance—that death is quite literal. It’s the reason revolutions are almost always bloody. For FIFA, of course, revolution doesn’t have to be bloody, but a kind of death will be necessary. The old ways that have dominated its structure for decades will need to die. The question is whether FIFA’s leaders are willing to make changes on that scale—and if they aren’t, whether outside parties can force FIFA’s current leaders out and replace them with leaders who can effect the kind of principled, widespread change that’s needed.

Like a game-winning goal, there’s an element of serendipity to the miracle of reform. A bewildering number of contingencies have to fall in place—so many, in fact, that they can only really be explained as divine providence.

Which brings us to another kind of death: the everyday denial of the self and its desires. For the Christian, this is the deeper principle at work behind the kind of selflessness needed to make any positive change in the world. It’s what we mean when we talk about crucifixion. The old self can’t be fixed or reformed. It has to die, and a new kind of life altogether—the life of Jesus—has to come in and take its place. This principle is behind all real reform, and for Christians, it’s the hope we participate in when we work for change in the world. Even as exploitation and wickedness characterize the world we live in, we are called to participate in that new life, which is itself powerfully at work all around us.

There’s a difference, of course, between the spiritual death we participate in as Christians and the kinds of changes and sacrifices necessary for political and organizational reform. It’s the difference between life in God’s kingdom and life in the kingdom of the world. But the kingdom of God is at work in countless ways throughout the world, often in places where we least expect it. Its work is always surprising and usually hidden from plain sight. As long as that’s true, we can hope for real reform, even in an institution as corrupt and seemingly hopeless as FIFA.

When it comes, reform is a kind of miracle, as joyous as a winning goal in the last minute of a final. Like the goal, there’s an element of serendipity to it. A bewildering number of contingencies have to fall in place—so many, in fact, that they can only really be explained as divine providence. But also like the goal, reform is the product of years of patient, plodding work. It’s the product of self-sacrifice, and even of a kind of death. Only through the long toil of faithful self-sacrifice is real change possible.

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