A Better FIFA

“…While the FIFA witnesses at trial boldly characterized their breaches as “white lies,” “commercial lies,” “bluffs,” and, ironically, “the game,” their internal emails discuss…“how we (as FIFA) can still be seen as having at least some business ethics” and how to “make the whole f***-up look better for FIFA.”(1)

– Chief Judge Loretta A. Preska, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York



“You do realize that you’re represented by soulless cash whores? And when I say that I don’t mean any disrespect to actual whores.”

– Bill Maher


When one searches “FIFA corruption,” in quotes, it takes Google .24 seconds to generate over a quarter of a million results, 10 times more than “Congressional corruption,” and 20 times more than “sport corruption” generally.  Yes, its clear; the world governing body of the world’s sport has a three-pronged problem – corruption of people, of programs and of purpose.  And everyone knows it.

Out of those 250,000 results, the one that captures most compellingly and succinctly the problem is the submission of one John Oliver (thanks, John); and he’s right.  We who live to appreciate football as, on occasion, the perfect venue for nigh-perfect human kinetic expression know we cannot reconcile that love with how the sport is led today.


John Oliver, on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, this past Sunday.


And it is out of our own inconsistency, and reflective of that tension, that I ask you to meditate on the following alternative version of FIFA, and its set of alternative inviolate principles, as a launching point for robust discussion about serious change:


Pillars, Pathways and Deliverables – A Better FIFA.



“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.”
-Joseph Chilton Pearce


It’s an easy assertion to make that sport is socioculturally relevant; that, in many societies, mores, folkways, taboos, norms and even laws are informed by sport. We see it in the gathering we do on Super Bowl Sunday, or the early morning trek we make (in North America) to pubs to see and fellowship around Premier League matches.  Or in this.

When it comes to thinking through sport and its role in society, the Godfather of this work is Jay Coakley.  His seminal text, Sports in Society, is on its eleventh edition, reflecting decades of asking the questions “Does sport reflect us,” and “if so, how?”  Deploying a global and issues-based tack, Jay offers up potent models to understand the type of sport – and the type of sport governance – we might seek.  One of his most powerful is this contrast and comparison between what Coakley calls “power and performance sport” – the typical surface-skill-elites-than-dismiss-them-by-age-30 form we see today, and “pleasure and participation sport”; a way of connecting everyone with a sport across their lifetime in ways that enhance well-being…a way of delivering world football to which FIFA has been – in its thinking and its practice – totally ignorant.

As illuminated in the above graphic, FIFA as currently constituted really only acts as “steward” of one pillar of the sport of football, and it does not even do that with credibility.  While there’s no doubt that we want power and performance sport in our lives, a better FIFA would seek to integrate aspects of the second pillar – the participatory model of sport – both into the performance model and across its own remit to celebrate this game with the world.  The participation model does a better job of including all of us, across our lifecycle, in the sport we love.  It properly locates opponents not as enemies, but as others against whom we can test and measure ourselves.  And, cruically, it organizes sport not hierarchically but democratically – that is, reflective of the interests, hopes, concerns, expectations and aspirations of most of us, most of the time, while in every instance keeping track of the humanity of the most vulnerable.

This type of approach – being committed to integration of both pillars of sport – the power/performance pillar and the pleasure/participation one – could be a foundation for a new FIFA.  Indeed, I would argue that to prevent deviant overconformity to a (sometimes in our cultures sick, failed and crippled) sport ethic, governing bodies like FIFA must surface an expression of their sport that is 21st Century – a true integration of the best characteristics of each pillar, in ways that ensure we celebrate competition replete with the knowledge that we locate such expression within a wider commitment to well-being for all.



“Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?'”

– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.


The mechanisms that move a better FIFA to engage, connect and integrate the best of the two pillars of sport include a commitment to servant-leadership and capacity-building.  Many know that Robert Greenleaf launched the modern approach to servant-leadership with his 1970 essay “The Servant as Leader.”  Few focus, as we will, on the essay he wrote two years later: “The Institution as Servant.”  Directed to businesses, universities and churches, this second essay allowed Greenleaf to distill his approach thus:

“This is my thesis: caring for persons, the more able and the less able serving each other,
is the rock upon which a good society is built. Whereas, until recently, caring was largely
person to person, now most of it is mediated through institutions—often large, complex,
powerful, impersonal; not always competent; sometimes corrupt. If a better society is to
be built, one that is more just and more loving, one that provides greater creative
opportunity for its people, then the most open course is to raise both the capacity to serve
and the very performance as servant of existing major institutions by new regenerative
forces operating within them.”(2)

Servant-leadership in this institutional context is easily contrastable with what we know about today’s FIFA.  A better FIFA isn’t about becoming organizing oneself and one’s institutions to become Ken Basinger’s “Mr. Ten Percent.” Its about a future FIFA contributing to the good society through its people as servants, and, importantly, through the manifest forces that shape the actual institution into one that performs as global servant as a requisite state of being.  If we both wrestle with Coakley’s assertions and Greenleaf’s ostensible outcomes – a more just and loving society; a society providing more creative opportunity for its people; more competent and less corrupt institutions as servants – we come to the conclusion that an entirely new FIFA is required.  One that, if stakeholders in world football were to even accommodate a reformist approach, would require such “reform” as to render any new FIFA unrecognizable as compared to eh one we suffer today.

Yet a better FIFA could, in a servant orientation, build multiple types and forms of capacity among its member nation institutions and populations, moving this vision of FIFA to reflect tripartite levels of potential impact: individual, institutional and societal.  Imagine the power of soccer to forge the space to, as Ernesto Sirolli says, shut up and listen to local needs as opposed to, as we see today, funneling money to, supposedly, the current FIFA “GOAL Programme” to build more unsustainable pitches.  Deploying world football as the lens through which lifelong learnables are shared is powerful cultural content by which a real impact can be had.  And measured.



“Dad, even if the current FIFA criminals go to jail or get removed…what about FIFA ensures they won’t bring on new folks just like the old folks?  What ensures we won’t have another 3-4 decades of the same old thing?”

– My son, silencing me in early 2013


Consider the deliverables, the outcomes, of a better FIFA’s commitment to the integration of the two pillars of sport by values-based servant-leadership and capacity-building:


First the easy stuff:  I think a better FIFA would include four confederations, 50 nations each.  Europe, Africa, Asia/Oceania and the Americas.  A Cup of Nations with eight teams from each confed.  A bigger celebration/payday/trophy for the Fair Play team than the tournament winner (paying service to the notion that how you go about your play is more important than being lucky/skilled enough to make it through and win the Final).  Disagree?  Well, for our discussion back and forth to even matter, we need the second, harder thing: a FIFA better organized to persist in service to democratic expressions of the sport.

The first thing current FIFA President Sepp Blatter did after surviving the challenge of his number two, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, in 2002 was to ensure that the agenda of the Executive Committee included an augmentation of his own power, and a diminution of the power of the General Secretary.  Actually, that was the second thing.  The first thing was to rid himself of Zen-Ruffinen.  All this, of course within a wider context a FIFA today of faux-democracy; of ensuring that nations with, in certain contexts, a “one nation/one vote” sense of the democratic perceive that “democracy” across the organization, when, in practice, the Executive Committee (and, really, the President and the Emergency Committee, for all the decisions that drive resources) shapes the present and future of football.

A better FIFA would consider effective models of organizational democracy across not only sport but global and regional governance, as well as the best models from business, government and non-profit work.  Effective how?  In a few measurable ways.  One major area is inclusion and accountability.  Here in the United States, unless I connect myself with the Byzantine architecture of US Soccer’s intersticed governing bodies, I have no voice in how soccer resources are deployed here.   The bylaws, policies, membership types, membership classifications and fee-/process-driven minutiae serve as much to exclude voices as to organize them…a sort of “play our way or not at all” infrastructure that definitively excludes or marginalizes any submission that the structure itself is flawed.  A better FIFA would organize members in ways that demanded and ensured an ongoing maximization of stakeholders, of voices, in ways that reflected FIFA’s necessary status as servant to those voices.


Brennan’s First Law is the Law of transparency: in any organization, anywhere you as a person standing external to that organization cannot easily see?  That’s where all the lying, cheating and stealing is taking place; in other words, moral hazard and organizational fidelity are not the result of a bastardized ethics and governance reform process.  A better FIFA would exhibit transparency in the following ways:

– “Anyone can see” : from online, real-time financial and budget data to open publishing of all salaries (a la many universities, like this one in Maryland) to plain language bylaws to “open source” results evaluation to deploying tools to bridge the digital divide to live streaming of all meetings – subverting Brennan’s First Law with seeking out and exposing those places of darkness and filling them with both light and making their walls glass…that’s the beginning of transparency.



Moving beyond a CIES framework (CIES is a FIFA-originated notion of academic sports studies as patronage opportunity and consultant revenue funnel) where FIFA VPs like Austin Warner can slot in “girlfriends” into so-called academic slots, a better FIFA would tie its role in education to the capacity-building and servant-leadership pathways described earlier, becoming the solution to questions like “How do sport organizations offer up learning and career tracks that are outward-facing and about the needs of communities and other stakeholders?”

In addition, FIFA sad sack of responses to the scourge of racism – a communique from Blatter with the imprimatur of a star footballer lamenting racism in the game and vowing to address it – does, well, little to address it.  A better FIFA would allocate resources to move into spaces where this continues to be an issue and deliver educational seminars that not only were, again, outward-facing, but also which would be a weight/requirement connected to event participation, hosting etc., should that model of experiencing the sport even be continued.

Girls and Women (and the differently-abled, and the homeless, and…)

On and on.  We know that former and current FIFA leadership simply fail to respect female athletes; that tighter shorts and promoting women supine and sweaty is the mindset of FIFA leadership.  If you saw the ways in which women were not only located positionally at CONCACAF – the North American confederation of FIFA – but culturally, you’d have likely left sooner than I did (continue to check in on this blog to see the stories of some of these women during my time in and among this group).   But with adultery replete throughout the leadership, and with staff recognizing that “hooker hour” at any tournament meant the period early in the morning when all the escorts would descend, almost en masse, from hotel floors where football’s leadership would exclusively stay…we need a better way forward.

Freeing up opportunities for women not only to play and receive equal pay but to lead – how many women are on the FIFA Executive Committee today? – sets the tone for the inclusion of persons through multiple lenses of diversity: gender, thought, ability (as in differently-abled)…you know, like something authentically democratic.


This is no manifesto; these are approaches and ideas that can be damned, abandoned, amplified and/or explored.  We need a better FIFA.

And we are the leaders we’re looking for who can, and must, build it.


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