What FIFA Can Teach Us About Global Governance

Recently, the world’s “beautiful game” has shown an ugly side, usually only seen in the dirtiest of politics.

FIFA — soccer’s international governing body, and arguably one of the most effective supranational organizations in terms of the global business it conducts — has been immersed in scandal since it awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cup to Russia and Qatar respectively late last year. Western media and officials allege that FIFA accepted bribes, kickbacks, and gifts from both countries before awarding them the Cup.

Further stirring this scandal is a string of corruption charges against FIFA’s leadership. Sepp Blatter won his fourth consecutive term as the organization’s president last week, in the midst of allegations that he, his presidential challenger, and other members of the FIFA elite all paid for votes. 

Clearly the idea of “fair play,” which FIFA emphasizes to players to discourage racist taunts or hard fouls, is lost on the very leaders who coined the term. 

As FIFA cleans itself up, the organization should consider that it has a strong democratic precedent to set. FIFA serves as an example to the world and could provide a model for democratic international governance; a healthy and democratic FIFA could help liberal democracy flourish. In order to maintain its credibility, the organization must recast its leadership and dump Blatter immediately.  

There are many merits of FIFA’s work in terms of building concrete global policy. Chief among these is FIFA’s mandatory anti-government intervention clause that all nations must follow; every national government that has tried to usurp FIFA and implement control over its respective team has been sternly rebuked.

The power of FIFA is here shown in its ability to corral any nation which seeks to counter its laws. FIFA enforces their laws by threatening country membership. If a nation does not comply they are not World Cup worthy. On a ground level, society itself — in its love for the sport — forces national governments hand to obey FIFA. As such, the fact that governments accept FIFA’s international oversight starkly contrasts with other international bodies’ attempts to influence national policy (See: Libya’s refusal to obey the UN or International Criminal Court).

As people have a great deal of passion for sports, they accept the legal aspects sports organizations impose on them. FIFA clearly exerts a powerful influence over policy, especially when it comes to fair democratic governance. Regions of the world with poor democratic track records — Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East — have all functioned neatly in FIFA’s democratic system, complying with all of its rules. Fans, players, managers, and clubs all accept FIFA laws. The simple act of a referee's calling a foul and the game's proceeding uninterrupted by an angry mob proves that the average person values FIFA’s rules. It is hard to imagine a penalty kick splitting a country into civil war the same way a UN decision would. Again, FIFA’s compliance stems from the threat of omitting a national team from international play.

The sports world looks to FIFA to make fair, democratic laws. FIFA, in its role, exports democracy to global citizens. But the current bribery and corruption scandals threaten this notion by showing the world that supranational institutions are as deeply flawed as any other. If FIFA doesn’t work — if undemocratic principles can prevail and reap success — then why should the developing world listen to the U.S. or any other democracy-loving nation?

It becomes vital to solve this philosophical conundrum.

FIFA must show that democracy does work and put to rest doubts that the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were bought. It should hold new votes, carried out by a new FIFA Congress. Blatter himself should resign — along with the majority of the organization’s tainted leadership — and new members should be appointed by each of soccer’s six regional governing bodies. If Russia and Qatar can again sway this new FIFA Congress, then the World Cup fairly goes to those countries. This would show that democratic principles prevail and would set a precedent for the rest of the world.

Otherwise, FIFA, tackled by its own corruption, will fail to show that democracy means “fair play.” 

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