The FIFA Scandal: What We Can Learn about Ethics and Compliance

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Soccer (or “football” depending on your geographic orientation) is often referred to as the “beautiful game.” Of late, as recently as this month, the sport has become a bit less beautiful. The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (known as FIFA), the international governing body of soccer, has been embroiled in a corruption scandal that has rocked the organization to its core.

It began in May 2015. Fourteen FIFA officials were arrested and indicted in connection with an investigation by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and US Justice Department into wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering, spanning a period of 24 years. That December, 16 more officials, including two FIFA vice-presidents, were arrested on similar corruption charges. Since then, the events snowballed into a full-blown scandal, with longtime FIFA President Sepp Blatter and other top officials banned from FIFA activities. The investigation into FIFA has revealed a toxic culture of unethical behavior, non-compliance and corruption that started from the top and trickled down to every facet of the organization. This culture became so entrenched in FIFA, that reform looked to be a monumental undertaking.

For the longest time, the average fan of international soccer could tell you that FIFA was not the most ethical of organizations. Whether it was awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a nation that has no tradition of soccer and questionable labor and human rights standards, over countries like the United Kingdom and US or using FIFA’s status as “guardians” of the World Cup and other major international tournaments to garner lucrative television deals, fans had reason for uneasiness. Now that the shady, high value network of schemes, side deals and avarice has been revealed, fans would like to see reforms initiated in FIFA.

FIFA officially started the process when it convened a special session of the FIFA Congress on February 26, 2016, in response to the corruption case. In addition to voting Gianni Infantino, who ran on a campaign based on “cleaning up” FIFA, as the new President, the Congress approved a full reform package, aimed at addressing shortcomings in FIFA’s governance practices. Some of the reforms included separating the management part of the organization from the political, limiting terms of office, performing consistent integrity checks, and greater transparency in day-to-day operations.

FIFA’s Independent Ethics Committee also received an extended mandate to investigate violations of FIFA’s Code of Ethics in connection to the corruption scandal. Chairman of the Adjudicatory Committee Hans-Joachim Eckert and Chairman of the Investigatory Chamber Cornel Borbely led the internal investigation and reform efforts, as they were responsible for uncovering key findings of corruption by top officials, including former president Blatter.

Last year, it seemed like FIFA was on the pathway to becoming a new organization based on integrity, ethics and compliance however, recent developments have frustrated expectations. Since becoming President, Infantino has failed to follow through on reforms and slowly has fallen back into the mold of his predecessor. In May 2017 the reform process took a major hit when, at the behest of Infantino, FIFA decided not to renew the mandates of Eckert and Borbely. At the time of their ouster, Eckert and Borbely were in the process of investigating hundreds of internal cases and their removal is a decided setback. In a joint statement, the pair have stated their dismissal “meant the de facto end of FIFA’s reform efforts.”

Going forward, it looks like FIFA is set to continue in the same mold that it has for much of its existence. The case of FIFA is a lesson of how hard it is for any organization to reform a deep-rooted unethical culture. The FIFA scandal shows that a change in leadership may not be sufficient to reform a corrupt culture, even the culture of one of the highest profile institutions in the world. As a result of the ongoing turmoil, FIFA will find it difficult to overcome its negative image of an organization that resists reform.

The FIFA corruption case is unique in that international soccer does not have another governing body, as FIFA has a sole monopoly over the administration of the sport. As the sole keepers of the biggest international soccer tournaments, FIFA is in a position of implementing reforms at their own pace and how they see fit, because FIFA’s ethics controversies will not stop the majority of soccer fans from viewing major tournaments like the World Cup, the European Championships and the Confederations Cup. The only potential cost to FIFA is a fan base that views them in a negative light but really has no other options to turn to.

However, for other companies and organizations in the international marketplace, letting a culture of non-compliance and unethical behavior fester can have a devastating impact. If a company gets caught up in a corruption scandal, that company will likely lose the trust of their client base and cede ground to competitors. Additionally, their only form of recourse will be to initiate thorough and public reforms in order to build back the credibility of the organization. FIFA might be able to revert back to their old ways without alienating too many fans, but companies that shun compliance and ethics are exposing themselves to much more risk.

Amol Nadkarni is a Program Assistant for Global Programs at CIPE