Last week, world soccer’s governing body, FIFA, again proved its knack for producing compelling spectacles that glue millions to their TV screens. But this time, rather than Messi and Neymar, the show starred the Swiss police, America’s attorney general and Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s wounded but unbowed chief, as he fought to keep his job even as 14 of his top lieutenants faced U.S. indictments under RICO: the anti-racketeering law originally designed to fight the Mafia.
The danger is that the breathtaking venality laid bare in the Justice Department’s indictment will lull us into thinking a change of personnel is all it will take to reform FIFA. The problem goes much deeper: FIFA’s structure is corrupt to the core. Even if Mr. Blatter is somehow shoved aside or jailed, without radical reform, corruption will only sprout again under a different capo.
The root of the problem, as Carl Bialik has observed, is FIFA’s “One Country, One Vote” rule for making most major decisions. It gives small countries hugely outsized influence over the organization, influence out of all proportion to their interest in or contribution to the game. Just think, 5,257 times more people play soccer in Germany than in Bhutan, but both Germany and Bhutan each get one vote.
One Country, One Vote is an absurd rule that Mr. Blatter has deftly manipulated to create a stranglehold over the game. By pouring patronage into tiny countries’ football infrastructure, Mr. Blatter has created an unbreakable web of cronies at National Soccer Confederations around the globe. A few hundred thousand dollars spent on a physiotherapy center building in Tahiti, or on a soccer pitch in the Comoros locks in those countries’ votes at the FIFA Congress. It’s a coalition of these micro-states that keeps re-electing Mr. Blatter, and will continue to in perpetuity, as long as One Country, One Vote is the rule.
That’s why reform efforts need to go beyond the call to get rid of Mr. Blatter and his cronies, and look at sensible ways to represent countries proportionally to their commitment to the game.
The solution is clear: One Player, One Vote. Voting should be weighted by the number of players, amateur and professional, officially registered with a country’s soccer federation. It would be something like America’s electoral college, where each state has a voice in presidential elections, but big states speak louder than others.
The result would be a major shift in power to countries where people really play the game. Nor would the change benefit just European countries: South Africa, with its 1.4 million registered players, would suddenly have 175 times the voting power of Latvia, where just 8,385 people play. And while Vladimir Putin has been no fan of the recent moves against FIFA, even he might wonder why Russia, with its 847,000 registered players, shouldn’t have a louder voice around the table than Kuwait, where just 2,200 people play the game regularly.
Such a shift would change incentives for Football Association officials all around the world: Suddenly, the way to increase your power would be to sign up as many new players as possible, and to keep them playing the game. In many places, the easiest way to achieve that would be to attract women and girls to the pitch, where they’re often grossly underrepresented.
That of course is what Football Associations should be doing: Making sure a multibillion dollar commercial juggernaut encourages participation at the grassroots level, rather than bankrolling lives of luxury for bureaucrats in lands where nearly no one plays the game.
One Player, One Vote would empower the countries most dedicated to soccer to make the big decisions. The 12 biggest countries (Germany, the United States, Brazil, France, Italy, England, South Africa, the Netherlands, Japan, Russia, Canada and China) would, together, account for over 60 percent of the votes. That would be more sensible than the current system, where, in an association with 209 members, 50 percent of the votes go to 105 countries that are home to just 2.2 percent of the world’s soccer players.
The biggest obstacle to this common-sense reform will be persuading FIFA to adopt it. The organization is so shot through with corruption that it can’t stop itself from re-electing Mr. Blatter, even with the F.B.I. knocking at the door.
Under current rules, the 105 smallest associations have the votes to block any reform that would abruptly throw them off of the gravy train. It’s hard to conjure up a scenario that would induce Curacao’s soccer federation to vote itself out of numerical parity with Brazil’s.
It may well be that FIFA cannot be reformed from within. The events of the past few days, with FIFA doubling down on Mr. Blatter even as the European federation chief, Michel Platini, threatened a walkout from FIFA, certainly point in that direction.
Perhaps real change will require the collapse of a fatally flawed organization and the rise of a new governing body willing to adopt One Player, One Vote.
It sounds radical, but it has happened before. International tennis competitions used to be organized by the International Tennis Federation until the players mutinied and essentially supplanted it with their own organization, the Association of Tennis Professionals, which is now the sport’s world governing body in all but name.
FIFA could carry on in vestigial form, applauding a centenarian Mr. Blatter as members pay bribes to one another in empty banquet halls while corporate sponsors like Visa and Coca-Cola flock to a new organization supported by the world’s top players and the nations where they play.
But for the sake of the game so much of the world loves, Mr. Blatter’s FIFA must never again be allowed to organize a major championship. That can only happen if some of the major footballing powers and their players take the plunge, and make good on the threat to secede from FIFA.
Francisco Toro is the founder of the blog CaracasChronicles.