Carrot on a stick

Steve Menary examined how FIFA's strict rules on "political interference" were being enforced across world football, and found varying results

If a private club suspended five percent of its members in the same number of years, asking for an explanation would seem perfectly reasonable. FIFA’s reason for suspending a dozen of its 208 members – some more than once – since 2005 is “political interference”.

The latest suspension came in November, when Iraq’s national Olympic committee dissolved the Iraq Football Federation (IFA) using armed security staff. FIFA asked for the IFA to be reinstated in 72 hours. When this was ignored, the reigning Asian champions were expelled. As holders, Iraq are guaranteed a place at the next Asian Cup finals in Qatar in 2011 but neighbours Kuwait must qualify. In a group with Australia, Oman and Indonesia, Kuwait can reach the finals if results go their way in the next round of matches. However, they are only being allowed to take part on a provisional basis having been banned by FIFA twice since 2007. The Kuwait FA are now required to meet FIFA statutes separating members from political interference by January 31, 2010.

FIFA previously let Iran, banned in 2006, back into the fold just in time for the 2007 Asian Cup but there has been no leniency for Brunei, whose FA was suspended indefinitely in September 2009 after the Asian Sultanate’s government decided to replace it with a new body. Brunei sat out the 2011 Asian Cup qualifiers. In 2008, FIFA expelled Peru, Madagascar, Chad and Ethiopia. The Ethiopians were forced to sit out a regional cup in Uganda and the ban, which was not lifted until summer 2009, contributed to a two-month delay in holding the tournament as Zambia were brought in as guests.

Not many of the 15 FIFA bans in the last five years had provided such meaningful punishment. Greece were suspended briefly in 2006 but Otto Rehhagel’s side did not miss any competitive matches. Often just the threat is sufficient. In 2008, the government of Euro 2012 co-host Poland decided to replace the Polish Football Association with an administrator. FIFA threatened a ban and this threat, like one made to Portugal in 2006, was enough to make the Polish politicians back down.

Late last year, FIFA also warned 2010 World Cup finalists Chile of a ban if a legal case by club side Rangers against the Chilean FA over their relegation went ahead. The federation also got 72 hours to resolve the problem or miss their first World Cup in 12 years. The result – Rangers dropped their claim.

Yemen were banned in 2005 and Kenya in 2006, the latter at least producing reform of a corrupt Kenyan association, but FIFA’s use of bans or threats is inconsistent. In November 2009, Guinea’s team was reportedly dissolved by the country’s minister of sports after missing out on the World Cup and the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations. The president of Guinea’s ruling junta, Moussa Dadis Camara, had sacked Guinea’s French manager Robert Nouzzaret earlier in 2009 and his replacement Mamadi Souare went the same way. No FIFA censure followed but then an African nation in the international wilderness while the continent hosted the World Cup for the first time would not look good. Then there is the question of how political interference is defined. In totalitarian North Korea, for example, it’s inconceivable that the football federation is free of government control but that does not seem to be a problem for FIFA.

FIFA’s lack of explanation also seems to extend to its own confederations. “Sorry I don’t know,” was the bemused response from Tai Nicholas, general secretary of the Oceania Football Confederation, on being asked why Samoa is again under threat of an international ban. Samoa were suspended in 2008 after running up huge debts. FIFA’s appointment of a “normalisation committee” to run the island’s football was resisted – half a dozen clubs refused to accept former New Zealand international Colin Tuaa as interim chairman – but the ban was lifted and a new body set up. At a special general meeting of the new Football Federation Samoa in December, Tuaa announced that many debts were gone and the six “rebel” clubs were expelled by a vote of the remaining members.

Football in Samoa is now being “monitored” by FIFA, as it is in Togo and El Salvador too. FIFA is clearly reliant on these bans and threats to keep its disparate membership on its side but there is another reason why “political interference” is clamped down on. Every four years, FIFA hands out $1 million (£624,000) to each full member. For cash-rich nations such as England that is a relatively insignificant amount but to smaller members it’s a lifeline and worth voting Sepp Blatter back in as FIFA president – again. The threat of a ban also discourages politicians within each country from asking where the money goes.

From WSC 276 February 2010