For years Sepp Blatter has proclaimed how wonderful his organisation is, but a report  has highlighted how unaccountable FIFA are and a court case in Switzerland is hearing allegations that a collapsed marketing firm paid bribes to members of FIFA committees. John Sugden sorts through the murk

Two developments are raising serious questions about the way Sepp Blatter and the organisation he so prominently overlords go about their business. First, in a recently published “accountability” league table comprised of 30 of the world’s most powerful international organisations, it will come as little surprise to those of us who have been investigating world football’s governing body to discover that FIFA are languishing fifth from bottom.

The report was published in 2007 by the independent and highly respected One World Trust, which aims to promote an ethical and democratic practice in business and non-commercial institutions in an increasingly globalised setting. In compiling the table, points have been awarded with regard to how accountable these bodies are to their memberships and to external stakeholders and regulatory bodies in political and civil society. The research judged organisations’ performance according to four criteria: transparency; participation; evaluation; and complaint and response procedures. With the exception of participation – the extent to which an organisation’s membership can influence decision-making, where FIFA are placed mid-table – on all other dimensions Blatter’s organisation scores very badly.

The 30 sampled transnational organisations are clustered into three groups of ten: IGOs (international government organisations); INGOs (international non-government organisations); and TNCs (transnational corporations). FIFA is bottom of division INGO, making it the least accountable of this sample of some of the world’s most influential international players. These findings make a total mockery of FIFA’s self-declared mission “to be a model of fair play, tolerance, sportsmanship and transparency”.

Perhaps now we can understand better a second set of circumstances that are threatening to bring down the House of Sepp. In the first weeks of March 2008 in a small courtroom in the small Swiss canton of Zug, after a four-year investigation, six senior executives of ISL, the giant sports-marketing company that went bankrupt in 2001, faced charges relating to embezzlement and corruption.

ISL was created by the late Horst Dassler, a scion of the mighty Adidas empire and key confidant of Blatter’s predecessor in FIFA House, João Havelange. Dassler’s company rose to become the favoured media and marketing partner, first of the International Olympic Committee and later FIFA, with whom it secured very lucrative deals for the rights to televise the World Cups of 2002 and 2006.

After Dassler’s death and Havelange’s retirement, FIFA and ISL fell out in 1999 when the latter did a side-deal with Brazilian television network TV-Globo and sold off a proportion of the television rights for $60 million (at the time about £35m) without giving FIFA’s bosses their share.

ISL then went bust after overstretching itself in a deal to televise the ATP’s global tennis circus. In a move aimed at distancing the organisation from ISL’s fall, while at the same time recouping the money they believed was owed, in 2001 in the Zug court FIFA filed a criminal complaint for fraud against ISL officials. FIFA withdrew this complaint in 2004 when Swiss lawyer Peter Nobel, after negotiations with ISL’s receiver, opened a bank account in Zurich into which the recipients of some bribes paid by ISL would return the money. Blatter soon discovered that it is one thing to start a fire, entirely another to put it out when the Swiss prosecutor chose to ignore this intervention and pressed on with the ­investigation.

The full extent of the corruption at the heart of ISL began to emerge during the trial, when the Swiss judge revealed that allegedly more than £60m was paid to ­leading sports officials in the bid to win tenders for valuable television and marketing rights. One of the few recipients to be named is Nicolás Léoz, a Paraguayan who has been president of the South American Confederation since 1986 and is a member of FIFA’s executive committee – the decision-making body that adjudicates on important issues such as who wins television and marketing rights. The implication is clear.

Whether any more FIFA officials are named and shamed remains to be seen, as to date the former ISL officials on trial have exercised their right to silence. Whatever the final outcome of the Zug trial, which is set to last through the summer, FIFA’s proximity to and intimacy with a failed and fraudulent ISL can only do further damage to their already tarnished reputation.

In the context of the findings of the 2007 Global Accountability Report, the events unfolding in Switzerland are hardly surprising. FIFA are accountable only to the self-styled “FIFA family” that sits at the apex of the organisation with a long history of feathering its own nest. The unaccountable FIFA thrive when public interest in how they conduct their business is not aroused. A small number of journalists and academics have been campaigning for a more accountable FIFA for many years. In failed attempts to muzzle public criticism, some of us have even been sued by Blatter and FIFA.

However, the Swiss courts cannot be bullied and sued into silence and neither can the unequivocal findings of the One World Trust simply be buried. In the world of football with which I am familiar, if you come bottom of the league you are relegated. Maybe the time has come for Blatter and his cronies to be relegated out of football altogether.

John Sugden is Professor in the Sociology of Sport at the University of Brighton and co‑author with Alan Tomlinson of Badfellas: FIFA Family at War. To see the full detail of the 2007 Global Accountability Report visit One World Trust

More FIFA stories can be found at the website of Andrew Jennings, author of Foul!: The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and Ticket Scandals

From WSC 255 May 2008

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