By Adam Echelman
Over the past 30 years, FIFA has risen rapidly to become one of the world’s most influential institutions. With World Cup venues in new locations like Brazil, Russia, and Qatar, it seems President Sepp Blatter is taking on an aggressive agenda that goes beyond simply organizing soccer tournaments. Indeed, FIFA has played such a prominent role in international affairs that Blatter fancies himself a viable candidate for the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize.
Critics of FIFA, however, claim that corruption charges and commercial incentives undermine the association’s political and social achievements. In many ways, those critics are right. The problem lies not in FIFA’s leadership but more broadly in its sudden and rapid expansion. By increasing its philanthropic and diplomatic influence, FIFA has lost track of its true purpose and exposed itself to corruption. FIFA must prioritize soccer over political opportunism if it wants to succeed in the future.
To understand FIFA’s power, you must first understand the game. Soccer is ubiquitous, from Syrian refugee camps to the Chinese Super League, from street-ball to stadiums. It is the world’s most popular sport with an estimated 270 million players and referees—making the World Cup the largest and most popular single-event sporting competition.
With over 3.2 billion viewers (46 percent of the world’s population) from 204 broadcasting countries, the World Cup has become a stage for international diplomacy. Argentina exacted revenge for the Falklands War by defeating the UK in a qualifying match; Iran and the U.S. came together in an unprecedented show of peace over a 1998 World Cup game; tensions over the Armenian genocide exploded as Turkey faced Armenia on the field. In 2002, FIFA asked Japan and South Korea to co-host the World Cup. Despite their tumultuous history and weak diplomatic ties, both countries agreed to FIFA’s request, inaugurating a period of unparalleled peace and exchange between the two nations—all in the name of soccer.
The extension of the World Cup into South Africa, Brazil, Russia, and Qatar highlights FIFA’s political growth, but it also hints at the organization’s philanthropic mission. When choosing host nations, FIFA often argues that the World Cup will attract business and tourists, thereby boosting the economy. By targeting developing countries like Qatar and Brazil—places where economic growth is paramount—FIFA has transformed itself from a soccer organization into a development agency where the World Cup is simply one of many tools to foster growth. In return, FIFA asks for full tax exemptions from the host country in “parties involved in the hosting and staging of an event.” Brazil will lose over $248.7 million due to FIFA’s tax policies, but ultimately, these losses dwarf in comparison to the massive profits of hosting the World Cup; Brazil is expected to gain over $90 billion in revenue. Of course, soccer is not a panacea. The long-term impact of hosting the World Cup is still relatively unknown, especially in developing countries like South Africa.
Even if long-term profits are low, the World Cup provides these growing nations with media attention. “Sport is the biggest contributor to nation building and social cohesion…. This is not about money; it is about recognition,” noted Fikile Mbalula, sports minister during the South Africa World Cup. The World Cup brings “intangible benefits.”
FIFA’s motto, “For the Game. For the World,” is representative of the organization’s two leading expenses. FIFA spent 70 percent of its funds on its sport between 2007-2010 but left more than 22 percent of the remaining assets for philanthropic ventures. In fact, FIFA was one of the first organizations to create a corporate social responsibility unit, using its endowment to support the Financial Assistance Programme, the Goal Programme, and smaller charities like SOS Children’s Villages.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee felt so strongly about FIFA that it nominated the game of soccer in 2001 and former FIFA president Dr. João Havelange in 2012. President Blatter’s recent initiative, Handshake for Peace, suggests that FIFA will continue to increase its humanitarian presence (as Blatter pines for the Nobel). “In setting up the Peace Prize, Alfred Nobel wished to promote fraternity between nations, and it is our belief that football has a central role to play in that cause…The Handshake for Peace will be a symbol that allows the world to see the stars of football greet and respect each other when the match is over,” wrote Blatter in a letter.
Recent corruption scandals, however, have tarnished FIFA’s public image. Following the Nobel Peace Prize nomination, bribery reports against João Havelange forced him to resign entirely from FIFA in 2013. President Blatter, although innocent in the 2013 report, faces similar bribery charges regarding the choice of Qatar as host country for the 2022 games. Blatter’s elections are also questionable: he has run unopposed in his past two elections and is looking towards a fifth term in 2015.
Over the past eight years, spending on the World Cup has skyrocketed. Estimates indicate that Brazil will spend over $11 billion—that’s triple the amount South Africa spent and almost seven times the amount Germany spent. For developing countries with less robust economies, the pressure to create lavish stadiums and new hotels seems ludicrous, especially when FIFA refuses to pay taxes.
Still, this corruption is not necessarily inherent to FIFA. The 2014 World Cup has brought attention to a variety of problems endemic to the organization and Brazil. Discussions of corruption, rising inequality, and increased spending have flooded the news in weeks leading up to the World Cup. Yet these issues are only part of the greater problem.
Soccer, as a sport, is and will always remain the same. Problems of corruption arise as FIFA increases its social and political influence. FIFA should continue to support charities and world peace to an extent. But receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, issuing vague promises of economic growth to host nations, or facilitating greater diplomacy between countries—these endeavors lie beyond the scope of a soccer organization. While such pursuits are honorable, they have detracted from FIFA’s commitment to soccer. At the end of the day, FIFA must choose whether it is “For the Game” or “For the World.”
Adam Echelman is an editorial assistant at the World Policy Journal.