Can we have our game back please?

Ever wondered what the most influential non-religious book of the last few hundred years might be? How about this one: The Rules of Association Football

I was brought up on football during the 1980s & 1990s, but like many kids was never really that good at it – especially when I was young. A great reader of the game, but could barely kick for toffee until my early teens. Jumpers for goalposts, freezing on the windswept terraces, the most rudimentary (but splendidly addictive) football player and manager simulation games for our computers followed by a Sunday afternoon match on the telly if we were lucky. Then in my mid-teens I got distracted by women and alcohol. (Are these two more expensive and more heart-breaking than following a rubbish football team? I’ll let you answer that one).

The game itself has changed enormously from the game I was familiar with on the playgrounds of primary school. The standards of the stadia have improved immensely. A number have conferencing facilities and some have hotels built inside them. (I stayed over at Bolton’s one for a couple of conferences during my civil service days when invited to speak/participate). Ditto with our knowledge of training regimes, fitness & diet. In many grounds the days of freezing on the exposed terraces with what the cafe says is tea have long gone. (Been there done that). And who remembers growing up with oranges at half time & your trainer with the ‘magic sponge’ (a sponge kept in a bucket of ice-cold water) for when you got hurt?

But there is something rotten at the core of The Beautiful Game – one that is similar across lots of other institutions: corporate governance.

Football was already big business before I was born – the advertising boards at football matches tell us that. In this day and age, where the crowds go, the money follows. If you can get the crowds to go to your place and buy your stuff, the money’s guaranteed. And that stench of money has attracted more than its fair share of flies. (Look at FIFA’s annual report for 2009/10 – in particular the graph at the bottom of Page 15. In Dec 2003, FIFA had reserves of $76m. In 2010, these had grown to $1,280m!)

Money itself need not be a problem if there are sound corporate governance systems in place as safeguards. The problem is, those systems and safeguards have been lacking at FIFA.

The first time I realised something was wrong with FIFA was after the 1998 World Cup match between Chile and Italy – in which I felt the referee had a pretty good game. Blatter on the other hand thought otherwise – calling for referees to be more strict. (Note the date of that article). Even as an A-level student I was questioning what competency this man had to tell referees how to referee the game. It was a mixture of “what refereeing qualifications do you have Mr Blatter?” to “I didn’t vote for you!”

The questions around FIFA’s governance have not gone away – in fact they’ve increased. Everything blew up after England’s failed bid for the 2018 World Cup. Both the BBC and the Sunday Times were already going after FIFA with their investigations and allegations, and the whole thing went global after Russia and Qatar were awarded the 2018 and 2022 world cups respectively. It was not long after joining Twitter that I became aware of @ChangeFIFA & @BonitaMersiades who were & are going after FIFA.

The awarding of the 2022 tournament to Qatar in particular – who have never qualified for a world cup before, along with an existing lack of infrastructure (footballing or otherwise) and a hot, dry climate over Australia, which successfully hosted the Sydney Olympics in 2000 led to accusations flying. Paul Kelso in The Telegraph of 23 July 2011 summarises these issues.

Non-tory followers of Puffles’ twitter account will probably state that when David Cameron criticises you over corporate governance and transparency, you know you’re in trouble. But this is more than about the ‘yah-boo’ of politics. FIFA is the global governing body of what I still like to think is the greatest game on the planet.  As Kelso states

“The root problem of what looks increasingly like endemic corruption is the cosy system of patronage fostered by Blatter and a lack of accountability and transparency. The flawed and unsatisfactory World Cup bidding process exposed it beyond doubt.”

This lack of transparency and accountability was the subject of an investigation by Parliament – the conclusions of which were damning. (Make what you will of Fifa’s official response)

What sort of accountancy and transparency does FIFA and its member associations need? In a nutshell, make member associations accountable to the paying fans, including:

  • Move to a model where national leagues and associations can be held accountable to fans – for example by regular scrutiny of representatives of supporters’ clubs. Once you start doing that, it makes it more difficult for corrupt practices to take place.
  • Separate the administrative functions from the ‘footballing’ functions at both national and international level. This is especially the case with refereeing.
  • Have a “Fit and Proper” persons test for appointment to FIFA and enforce it.

Similar criticisms could be made of national football associations – and Parliament has gone after The FA in a similar inquiry. The problem is that until the FA gets its house in order, it’s not going to be in much of a position to call for the same at FIFA.

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