Where is football going?

Antonio Saccone

South Sudan vs Benin 2017 AFCON qualifiers, 1:2

“Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!”
(Dante Alighieri, “I. canto – La divina commedia”)

The greatness of the evergreen texts is that they are always modern, contemporary and fresh. The incipit of the Divine Comedy of Dante is quite appropriate to interpret the current situation of football and FIFA (Federation International of Football Associations), which look lost in the middle of a complex crossroad of economic, political, social, cultural and mediatic trends and phenomena – positive and negative – simultaneously reflected and reproduced. According to www.fifa.com, the football community is composed by 1,2 billion people worldwide, the FIFA has 209 football national federations, with a total of over 300 million registered players. Football arrives in every corner of the world, it engages a wide range of people, groups, stakeholders and organisation having different reasons, logic and goals. Football can be analysed, observed and judged through different lens and disciplines: where the aggregation dimension is prevailing, we can observe many positive impacts on people, communities  and societies (dialogue, understanding, leisure, joy, human rights education,…), where other logic are dominant, we can see also many negative phenomena, including corruption, doping, nationalism, violence, exploitation of young players and many others. For sure, football is an important phenomenon in our society, it is massively and constantly present on media, with aspects linked either to competitions and athletes, either to other aspects, including judiciary investigations, arrests, scandals, corruption and violations of human rights. Many observations made until now can be extended also to other sports, with football having a predominant dimension in terms of engagement of people, resources and passions and global presence.

Zurich, 26th of February 2016, h 18. A woman hugs a middle-aged man, who stands up, enjoy long rounds of applause, shakes hands, walks to the stage, greet the crowd in five languages thanking everyone to have elected him as the new FIFA President. By hearing his name, many people would link him to Italy, by seeing his face, many football people could recognise the person in charge for the drawing of European football competitions. This man is the polyglot Giovanni Vincenzo Infantino, 53 years old Italian-Swiss lawyer. The woman hugging him is Lina Al Achkar Infantino, she comes from Lebanon, his wife and the mother of his four daughters. According to the first interviews and public statements, Infantino relation with football is more linked to the “passion” than “talent”: “The football virus was injected into me when I was a kid from my parents, my father in particular […] I was normally on the bench […] I was really only playing because my mother was the one washing the shirts of my local team. This helped me to get a few minutes from time to time, when our team was already leading and I couldn’t cause too much damage. But still I had lots of fun playing when I was young, as I do now”. Nevertheless, he has found ways to be engaged in football in other roles: “I was a crazy football fan following my team all over the place. I remember when I said “I’m going to a game”, I’d prepare myself wearing jeans and the worst shirt I had. Now, when I sit to watch a game I have to wear a jacket and a tie. I think we need to change: as leaders of the game we need to become a little bit more like fans and less like politicians. If we remember that we all started out as football fans, the game will become much better […] Football without the fans is nothing. We need the players and we need the fans, and I think these two elements have been neglected for too long. Now it’s time to change this. It’s time to bring them in and involve them in all that we do” (source: FIFA Magazine 1904).

The main actors of football are the FIFA, its national members and six continental confederations, in charge of managing the football at continental level and of offering further support to the national associations. They are not formally members of FIFA but they elect its board. The President of FIFA is democratically elected by the members: each member has one vote. The main activities of FIFA can be divided in four main pillars: organisation of varied international competitions; to run football development program; to manage legal and financial issues; to preserve and protect football. The organisation is also a key player in the International Football Associations Board, the body in charge of establishing the rules of the game: no decision can be made without FIFA, but FIFA alone can not impose any rule. The Secretariat of FIFA – 400 international employees – is based in Zurich. On FIFA’s website there are a lot of references to transparent, democratic and accountable modus operandi, to fair play, fight against any form of corruption, a commitment towards being a role model for “integrity” as the organisation aims at being considered. But is it true?


The playing field

Playthegame.org is a Danish-based international conference and communication initiative aiming to strengthen the ethical foundation of sport and promote democracy, transparency and freedom of expression in sport. Jens Sejer Andersen, international director, explains that “There are two sets of problems. One is the “human greed”, part of the human nature, which is impossible to fix. To compensate the weaknesses of the human character, the organisations have to establish structures that prevent greed and power abuse. One of the main assets of sport world wide is that is often organised as “associations”: it has an immense value when we speak about local communities, engaging citizens, strengthening social cohesion, fostering connections, mutual loyalty and solidarity – for certain extent also for national communities. This big assets is also big challenge when sport become business, since we have other structures for business, where we have both external regulations (eg. taxes, environment, …) and internal control system, for example to protect the shareholders and avoiding that the director can steal money. These controls mechanisms don’t exist in sport. For the last decades sport has become a multi-million dollars global industry, the international association structure has proved inadequate. In many cases, the national federations did not protest much because they were showered with privileges, gifts and development grants from the top of the international organisation, in order to secure votes every time the presidential election was around. Many sport leaders have also actively recruited new poor countries in order to ensure further votes, without paying attention to the sport development in the countries.  In the case of FIFA for example, not many questions were asked about development grants: it has been too easy to take the money for privates”.

Starting from the experience of Playthegame.org in editing the “Sport governance observer”, analysis of the governance structures of all 35 international Olympic sport federations, Andersen adds that “There is not a very big difference in governance structures of many international sport organisations. I am not saying that they are all corrupted, but almost all are vulnerable to corruption and abuse: they don’t have system of good democratic elections, solid transparency requirements, accountability and internal/external control systems. Few organisations publish annual accounts or have rules to prevent conflict of interest”.

Even if it very big and powerful, the FIFA is only player in the football field. Andersen: “Corruption in football has not been invented by the FIFA, it is embedded also in national federations and clubs. Moreover, the Confederations are not subject to the same reforms as the central body about obligation to publish professionally audited financial report. This is serious problem, because the confederations appoint the all FIFA board, while only the President is elected by the Congress. It is predictable that they will do their best to protect the status quo and their interests in the future. It will be hard for Infantino to run a battle with those who run FIFA. The reform recently approved are only a first step: we have to remember that three years ago Infantino was fighting against these reforms together with the UEFA. By looking at those who have been until now his “political friends”, I don’t know how much we can expect from him”.

According to Andersen, the way forward seems to be a larger engagement of stakeholders: “The Governments should understand that it is in their duties to control sport organisations, especially when they are using public money. It is equally important that sport organisations themselves taking the lead in improving their governance structure. The issue here is that there is a lot of corruption in political elites around the world and they are the same elite from where sport elites are selected. The good side is that there is a global understanding that stealing is wrong. Is it any of 209 countries, is it any culture where corruption is accepted and considered as positive? Are people OK with politician/football leaders stealing money?”.

It seems that there is a difference between recognising the autonomy of sport – in terms of practice, based on the social engagement, on the freedom of getting together, of structuring games and competitions and so on – which doesn’t seem in discussion and to allow sport to be a tendentially wild rule-free sector.


Practical implications

“Sport all over the years has grown in a closed system – comment Deborah Unger, rapid response unit manager of Transparency International -, with people involved for years and years: leaders of international sport organisations have an average of for more than 10-15 years. One of the things we found in fighting corruption is that if a leader keeps a position for long time, in political, sport or other domains, there is a tendency is to set up a “network”; crown-ism and nepotism can be part of it. This situation often leads into corruption. If you do a bit of research you can find head of sport organisations appointing their friends or relatives into positions of power. For example the son of Michel Platini is working in a sporting organisation in Quatar”.

Also Transparency International – a global civil society organisation having as mission “a world free of corruption” – has been involved in sport: through its German brand, it is also part of the Sport and Rights Alliance, a consortium funded in 2015 together with Amnesty International, Football Supporters Europe, Human Rights Watch, the International Trade Union Confederation and Terre des Hommes. Deborah Unger confirms that: “We are also advocating for stricter human rights requirements in the bidding and awarding processes of sporting event: any country, city or organisation that wants to host any large sporting event must comply with globally understood human rights criteria: those are beginning to be build in. Also FIFA has started to look more closely at the human rights requirements for the bids of the World Cup: we think they should move quickly and put as much pressure as they can on any hosting country. Organisations as International Labour Organisation, Human rights Watch, Amnesty International and others have been on the ground, looking at what is going on in Quatar for example: they have published figures and data. Workers have died, many of them, it is because of the working conditions: they are bringing healthy workers, as healthy as possible, from overseas and they have to work under 40 degrees heat for long hours, they don’t live in good conditions, so people die. Quatar system is a sort of modern-day slavery. This should be not allowed to happen”.

What is the role of Infantino? Unger: “Infantino has a reform agenda that he did not put together but he has to implement in 60 days, so he has to start working on it. We still think there are important things that they are not in the agenda as an independent oversight, but we would also recommend to have independent non-executive members of the governing boards. The FIFA has lost a lot of trust around the world and Infantino has an opportunity now to start a reform process: I think it will take long time, because it is not just FIFA that has to reform, there are also the Confederations and 209 members associations, not all are very accountable and transparent”.

What can be the driver for change? Unger: “The FIFA is in financial difficulties, also if it is not a desperate situation since it has 1.5 billion dollars in reserve. The World Cup is every four years, the last year is when they got the most of the money, but according to the last program they are behind the schedule of around 550 million dollars. The sponsors are probably worried, it is also in their interest that FIFA’s image is linked to transparency and integrity: many companies have openly supported the idea of independent financial oversights. In the business world there is nothing wrong with FIFA trying to get the best deals they can in terms of sponsorship: the issue here is “what do they do with money?”. This could mean that the private companies are interested in investing in sport since it allows to reach wider audiences, to strictly reach the emotions of the people and to be linked to positive messages. As long as sport is not linked to scandals, corruption, discrimination, misuse of power and resources.


What happens at grassroots level?

The International Sport and Culture Association ISCA is a Danish-based international umbrella organisation of sport-for-all associations: it represents over 180 member associations across the world and over 40 million individuals. Its main goal is to promote physical activity for everyone. Mogens Kirkeby is the President: “The biggest problem for grassroots-sport is that we observe a decrease of physical activity in many countries. The governance issues of many major governing bodies damages “sport” as brand, as sector. For the future I can predict that this fact will have consequences not only for the international organisations, not only for activities led by the organisations, but also for the general image of sport at grass-root level, which will lead in further decreasing of sport participation. I predict that we will have growing difficulties in promoting, funding and organising grassroots sport”.

The ISCA has started a campaign called “Now We Move”, which takes place in Europe and Latin America, aimed by fighting against sedentary and unhealthy lifestyles. The report “Inactivity time bomb” shows that a quarter of European adults are insufficiently active and that inactivity’s contribution to all-cause mortality amounts to over 500,000 deaths per year across Europe.

Particularly important is the activity in the childhood, a significant determinant of future activity levels, and thus influences health outcomes throughout life. Speaking in economic terms, the report estimate in €80.4 billion per year to the EU-28 the public health costs linked to the four major non-communicable diseases (coronary heart disease, Type II diabetes, colorectal and breast cancer), and through the indirect costs of inactivity-related mood and anxiety disorders. These are the challenges that the ISCA is trying to tackle, where of course all the other sport organisations can play a role: “For me – explains Kirkeby – the most important level of sport is where most people participate, so the grassroot level. There are many governing bodies, clubs, local, regional and national organsiations. To implement a good governance at this level is by far more important than to have it in FIFA. If the local bodies have same level of governance as FIFA, the football would not exist. It is therefore important to work on governance at all levels, especially on levels where people participate, so local and regional”.

Can FIFA be a role-model in this process? Kirkeby: “I don’t believe in role models at international levels. I believe in local role models, in local work where the activity takes place. The influence between highest level to lowest, top down is negative, but there is no influence from the bottom to the top, which is a relevant problem too”.

The distance between the FIFA and the rest of the football was well expressed by Sepp Blatter in June 2015, when he decided to resign: “While I have a mandate from the membership of FIFA, I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football — the fans, the players, the clubs, the people who live, breathe and love football as much as we all do at FIFA”. It seems clear that the recent investigations of American and Swiss authorities have strongly marked the “trust” of the “base”.


The turning point

“I have a lot of personal problems with the World Cup in Quatar” – says Manuel Veth, editor in chef of www.futbolgrad.com and www.futbolcidade.com, web-based platforms dealing with past and current events encompassing respectively the post-Soviet space and the Americas through the conduit of the beautiful game – “I think the World Cup in Russia can make some sense, but the one in Quatar it doesn’t. That was a decision that I feel it was made above the people that make football today such as fans, players, clubs. I feel that in some ways – with that decision in particular – the FIFA has forgotten for whom the game is made: if the football people don’t count, then what is the point of playing? I think there is need for a real move back, making sure that football is for the people that cares about it. It would have made a lot of sense to go back to the USA (they were among bidders, nda). I think they would have organised a wonderful World Cup, since there nowadays the “football culture” is growing, there are great stadia and infrastructures for spectators. In the past, the World Cups have been global phenomenon  watched by many people, including the ones that usually don’t watch football: I don’t think that this is going to happen with this tournament. I still feel that Quatar was not just a mistake for all the relevant big issues that are going on, but also because it is a country without any relation with football: the risk is that a lot of people will be disassociated from this tournament”.

Is it anything that can be done now? Veth: “To take away the World Cup from Quatar is very difficult at this point, because the facilities have been built and the decision seems to be made. But you can guess that if FIFA makes that step and says “no, we are not going there – we are going somewhere else instead!” would costs a lot of money, but it would allow to gain a lot of prestige. Now the most important thing for FIFA is to make sure that the games goes to those who care”.

In facts, in the package of reforms, there is room either for transparency and accountability issues, either for human rights and gender equality, which seem to be perceived as part of the solution more than a further complication.


Shall we try a bottom-up approach?

“If I look at the current situation, my feeling is that it could have been a lot worse. If Sheikh Salman, who has been accused of having being involved in torture, had been elected, it would have re-underlined all criticism of fans and certainly not have helped to rebuild trust in the current situation in and around FIFA within the wider public. Gianni Infantino certainly is a very skilled football politician and grew into world football under the likes of Michel Platini and Sepp Blatter. But let’s see how and whether he is going to change things for the better,” said Daniela Wurbs, the CEO of Football Supporters Europe – FSE, an independent, representative and democratically organised grassroots network of football fans’ with members in currently 48 countries across Europe. “In the world of FIFA” continues Daniela Wurbs, “any action, whether it be in the field of governance or when we look at the implementation of mega sporting events, that can be characterized by honesty and transparency would certainly be an innovative step into the right direction. This will have to include true and systematic dialogue with supporters as key stakeholders. However, this particular bit might be the hardest part of work because fans will find it the hardest to regain trust in the football governing bodies, and even more so in FIFA, after all these years of scandals and of a football being shaped by greed of a few rather than the love for the game of the people”.

Looking at our society and the challenges we are fronting (outside football), is it room for a more extensive use of sport in different public policies (eg. inclusion of migrants, Sustainable Development Goals, …)? Wurbs: “Of course, especially professional football, with the money that it involves, the clubs and governing bodies could always take greater responsibility and use its integrative power and publicity in order to address social challenges, such as the refugee crisis etc. In countries where football clubs traditionally have had a greater community approach and where clubs are member-owned though – so, where supporters are involved at the heart of the governance – we can see that the community orientation of those clubs, as well as their social responsibility, is generally much greater than that of clubs with a profit-making business focus”.

How can FIFA dialogue with billions of fans located throughout the world? Do you have any practical suggestion? Wurbs: “Well, that’s easy: there are representative and organised supporter groups everywhere on this planet, the degree of their organisation depends both on the status of football in their country, but also how seriously they are taken as dialogue partners. FSE so far is the only continental supporter organisation, but it doesn’t have to remain like this. I think the key is that FIFA doesn’t believe that this could represent the true voice of fans from the terraces. But they can foster the development of continental networks like UEFA does with FSE – as long as they accept that these continental fan groups are independent but therefore able to transmit the true voice of their main stakeholders. This process can take time. Till then, a really great start would be to involve supporter representatives like FSE in the newly established Football Stakeholder Committee which was set up as part of the beginning reform process. The only key stakeholder group not represented in this Committee up until now are… the supporters”.


Is it any light at the end of the tunnel?

According to Dr Milan Hosta – dynamic Slovenian sport philosopher, director of the Institute of sport development SPOLINT – the worse for FIFA and for football is behind: “We have a new leadership, we should try to offer our support to get what was promised. The worse that can happen is not to see any change. Nevertheless, regardless of this non-transparent issues, the game itself did not suffer much: it is still the most popular game in the world. This is a very good sign and a solid ground to restart from the grassroots movement”.

“In a competitive and results-driven society – continues Hosta – too often we award only the results and we tend to forget about the quality of the process. I believe that the process determines the quality of the results: we shouldn’t deny this process and products closeness, the merging of these two things. When we do it, it is a form of “alienation”, we end up with not caring on how we got here as long as we are here, we just want to win the medal and who cares for how we got it.  At the end, we say that the winner writes the history, but it shouldn’t be like that: history is not only about opinions, but it is about facts, which of course also need to be put in a context. We should be clear for which values we stand for. If we take out the fair play values from sport, we end up in “gladiatorism”, in the “pure show”: this is not what sport is about. Sport is always about values. The human greed is “short sided”, we can see in many organisations: if they didn’t take care of setting the limits of tolerance to such kind of actions, then the whole organisation suffer. We need a system where the “common good” should be the priority: without this, not even the the individual can flourish”.

What is the direction to be followed at this point? Hosta: “I would support the agenda based on transparency, on keeping football as it is – so the most popular sport in the world – and, since the FIFA is generating a lot of income, I think that it is necessary to give back from where it comes from, so to the grassroots movement. It is important to keep the children playing in the fields, to educate them, to motivate them, to educate also through football. Since many kids love to play, football has to be a real tool to show them what is life about: this is one of the most important roles in terms of social responsibility of such a global organisation as FIFA. There are many good practices across the globe, the first step should be to look around searching for what has been done, to evaluate the results and to engage the competent people, empowering them as soon as possible”. The suggestion here seems to devote more attention to a proper implementation and use of development programs and grants.


Temporary conclusions

Football and sport can be great tools to gather people together. Therefore, they have the potential to become channels to access a wide range of human rights for everyone, including marginalised and vulnerable people and groups. To participate in sport and physical activity potentially strengths social cohesion, increases wellbeing and can reduce many “deviant behaviours”. In fact, through a strategic integration in wider policies, they can be concrete tools to address a list of social issues, to increase the quality of life and to reduce many public costs, not just related to “public health”. But this mechanism is possible only if sport and physical activity are inspired to the genuine principles of fair play.

While watching or taking part in a sporting event – of any level – there are a list of dimensions that we can see, such as the performances of athletes and the game dynamics, and others that we can not see, for example the processes ongoing inside the players and the referees, what happened in the fitting room or in the preparation of the events. A “fair play game” is based on the coincidence and compatibility of these dimensions. Since in sport there are many interests represented and since every successful policy is based on the engagement of different stakeholders – including public, private, non-for-profit and media, active at local, national and international levels – in writing, sharing and respecting rules that consider and balance the different interests on the field. This would limit also the impact of many negative phenomena currently attaching the integrity of sport. It can be a very complex and difficult process but not many other options seem to be currently available.

On the agenda of Gianni Infantino there is a list of important and complex challenges and it is indeed too early to draft any conclusions on the future of FIFA. The hope is that he will be able to be an inspiring and inspired leader capable to make decisions with his yes full of passion for the football people located around the globe. The human greed can be indeed a though enemy hard to defeat, but in the husman nature there are also “passion” and “good will”, two important factors capable to make a difference also in the most critical conditions.

“If we want civilisation, we can also use sport to promote the battle between what is right and what is wrong. The rules are put to show that human beings can control instincts. If you have a boxing match, the idea of the match is not to kill each others, as the fighters will do if there were no rules. In this perspective, sport represents civilisation. You can find many things in sport, but you have to make a choice” (Jens Sejer Andersen).


Foto: UNMISS/Flickr

This article was originally published in Slovenian translation in Razpotja magazine issue 23 (spring 2016).

Slovenian translation