The Politics of FIFA

By Alex Dawson, Student in Politics & International Relations

The recent discussion on Politics|Upside|Down of an apparent association between FA Cup winners and general election winners may not have Everton and Manchester City fans swapping their replica shirts for those of their red-shirted neighbours, but it can be used to draw attention to the politics of football and arguably the most politically influential body in world football, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, FIFA. FIFA is the umbrella organisation that makes the rules and laws of the game as well as sets its wider mission and philosophy.

Set against the context of first year undergraduates’ introduction to political systems in Politics & International Relations in Southampton, FIFA’s governance of the world’s game can be measured against the characteristics of an authoritarian regime.

Firstly, is it fair to evaluate FIFA from a political perspective at all? FIFA has institutional structures and norms such as its judicial bodies, executive branch and select committees and loosely mirrors a federal setup. It also makes decisions that are binding and enforced. It is this binding and enforced reaction to decisions that are made that some argue is the most important characteristic of a political entity (Hague and Harrop 2010).

FIFA has elected its current president Sepp Blatter to four terms. When accepting his latest mandate in June 2011 Blatter said ‘’I am honoured to accept the 61st FIFA Congress’s mandate to serve as president during the 2011-2015 period’’ proof indeed that decisions are made that are binding and enforced. There is also the language used.’ Mandate, Congress, President, Serve.’ that supports the view that FIFA can be seen as a political body and provide a basis for the argument that FIFA ‘does’ politics. Economically, it has influence. FIFA’s income statement from 2003 reports revenues of over 700 million Swiss Francs (£490 million). The GDP of Guinea-Bissau who did not qualify for last month’s African Cup of Nations being held in South Africa was £615 million in 2011 (World Bank, accessed January 2013). These figures illustrate the extent to which the financial power of FIFA now outstrips that of the government a constituent association.

So, having suggested FIFA can be evaluated as a political system, it is possible to consider whether it shares any characteristics with authoritarian rule.

Sepp Blatter has held the office of president of FIFA since 1998. When Blatter finishes his current term he will have been in power for 17 years. His predecessor João Havelange served between 1974 and 1998, some 24 years. ‘Indefinite political tenure’ of the ruler or ruling authority is one of the defining characteristics of authoritarian regimes. While this length of tenure might reflect continuity and success in FIFA’s governance of football, it does suggest a form of leadership and authority that is highly stable and resistant to political challenge.

Blatter’s election in 2011 was marred by allegations of impropriety that made it hard to keep up with events (during his election in 2002 Blatter was also accused of corruption). In controversial circumstances, Blatter was elected unopposed after his opponent, Mohamed Bin Hammam, was charged with bribery (Culture, Media and Sport Committee Report 2011). In Non Democratic Regimes, Paul Brooker argues that single-candidate non-competitive elections are features of ‘mono dictatorships’. Blatter won election with votes cast by 186 of FIFA’s 208 member associations, with the remainder such as the FA abstaining (Guardian June 1 2011). With a limited ticket for voters, this is consistent with Linz’s (2000) argument that a lack of pluralism is the foremost and most distinctive sign of authoritarian rule. Further, the election took place despite the English FA having asked FIFA to postpone the election so that an alternative candidate could stand against Blatter. No importance was placed on a competitive election (Culture, Media and Sport Committee Report 2011).

Lastly, Blatter has a history of comments and actions that could be considered to be antiquated, and which strengthen the case for characterisation of his rule as authoritarian. Lawrence Britt argues that fascist regimes have the characteristics of being sexist, homophobic, racist and corrupt, and having fraudulent elections. At various points Blatter has provoked controversy with the suggestion that female players wear more revealing kit to attract people to the sport, his suggestion that gay men and women should suppress their sexual orientation during the World Cup in Qatar, and that racist abuse between players on the pitch (essentially racist abuse in the work place) can be settled with a handshake at the end of the game.

If we recognise FIFA as a political entity, there are some grounds, at least, to suggest it shares some characteristics with authoritarian rule. This is most apparent in the length of unchallenged rule of FIFA presidents and single candidate elections means the governance of the most watched sport in the world could be largely undemocratic.

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