Why is FIFA So Infected With Corruption? A History

Photograph by Peter Robinson

What happened today with the arrest of six high ranking FIFA officials in Switzerland confirms something we all knew regarding the Fédération International de Football Association; it’s very corrupt. But how did soccer’s international governing body come to its tipping point? How did FIFA become such a corrupt organization?

At this point, it’s a well-known fact that FIFA ignores the labor laws of the countries in which it operates; a player can be sold or fired with little regards to his needs and desires. There is no gender equality. The upcoming Women’s World Cup will be played on artificial turf because FIFA argues that there is no money to pay for natural grass soccer fields, like it does for men’s World Cups. And the money: Does anyone really know how the 338 million dollar profits from last World Cup are managed?

FIFA has more members than the United Nations, so it’s not surprising no one dares to take on such a monster.

World Cup draw, 1930
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Like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), FIFA is really an organization of another time, born in 1904 from the enthusiasm of a few rich aficionados who operated with a very small budget, but whose decisions affected only their small circles. The sport was for the elite and bourgeoisie.

But what happened? Football became the sport of the masses and overtook these old institutions.

In the 1970s for example, FIFA was still very small. It organized the World Cups almost as a hobby. There were neither packed stadiums nor sports gambling. Millions were not made in publicity sponsorships, and soccer players barely made a living. Soccer jerseys were nameless because the most important aspect of the game was the team.

But everything changed with the invention of television and commercial brands like Adidas and Coca-Cola. When was this? It was in 1974, when FIFA president João Havalange said his famous quote “I came here to sell a product called football, and my intention is for this product to reach as many consumers as it can, and for its price to constantly grow.”

Havalange had won the presidency through seeking the votes of developing countries. All of Latin America supported him, and also countries in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean who had recently been freed from the leash of their European colonizers.

Sepp Blatter & João Havelange
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The Brazilian businessman told them he was going to give them the respect and place his European counterparts had denied them. This was FIFA’s political campaign. The poor were offered the luxury of playing the world’s most popular sport and received votes in return. Havalange also needed money, which he received from Adidas and Coca-Cola who were looking to take their brands to a global level.

These were the commercial promoters of the World Cup. And Havalange remained in power for 24 years.

Under Havalange, FIFA began a process of decay. With the help of his secretary and eventual successor, Joseph Blatter, corruption and patronage became the order of the day. Paying for favors and helping friends was everyday business.

In his book “FOUL! The Secret World of FIFA,” Scottish journalist Andrew Jennings describes how the sports marketing company ISL bribed João Havelange to obtain the broadcasting rights and sponsorship contracts for several World Cups.

And Adidas and Coca-Cola are still FIFA’s biggest sponsors. Their support from the very beginning is still their biggest bargaining chip. Loyalty amongst the corrupt.
Mexico’s selection as World Cup host in 1986 was also an act of cronyism between Havelange and his Mexican friend Guillermo Cañedo. In 1982, Colombia renounced their spot as World Cup hosts. FIFA called for elections, but despite the US being a top contender, the election was rigged and Havelange chose Mexico, according to Spanish newspaper El País. Steve Ross, who was Time Warner’s president at the time and had been a great promoter for soccer in the United States with his team Cosmos NY, left the soccer business after the World Cup bid incident. Mexico was terribly affected by an earthquake in 1985. With Mexico City destroyed, it seemed reason enough to cancel the World Cup or change venues, but nothing of the kind happened. The show must go on.

Nicolás Leoz (age 86) arrested today, is from Havalange’s generation. The same can be said of Eugenio Figueredo, from Uruguay, and from recently-deceased Julio Grondona, from Argentina, who served as FIFA’s vice president. All of them have been accused of corruption in their countries.

For many years the United States was uninterested in soccer, so no close looks were given to FIFA’s inner workings, and investigations were not taken seriously.

The rest of the world watched FIFA but no one dared to take a strong stance against it.

Taking a close look at FIFA’s history, one can easily understand how we got to this point.