Wednesday, July 28, 2010

FIFA and Democracy

Read the FIFA Statutes lately? No need, really, but since they’re kind of like the constitution that governs global football, they are worth peeking at if you have a free moment (though I grant you that they are mostly interesting to nerds like me).

I got to thinking about the FIFA statutes recently after reading Marina Hyde’s excellent and scathing piece about FIFA and South Africa. In it, she likens FIFA to a parasite that invades a host organism – pointing to the various ways FIFA uses (and abuses) countries to siphon off billions in tax free profits ($ almost 4 billion U.S. dollars this year alone): “Fifa's MO is to ensure the country's statute book has been made comfortable for its arrival, take over almost entirely for the period of time needed to siphon out the money, before pulling up anchor and moving on to the next host organism.”

What’s particularly troubling among the litany of troubling issues is the temporary suspension of some basic constitutional rights and practices in South Africa to accommodate FIFA. In the end, Hyde suggests that “the time has surely come to ask who regulates the regulator. Perhaps it's one for the UN, assuming Fifa isn't about to take its first seat on the security council."

If you ask me, I think Hyde’s question is worth asking. FIFA represents more than 200 national football federations – more than the UN has members – has global reach and power, so who gets to run FIFA is an important question.

But what exactly is FIFA? Is it (a) a private, for profit, corporation; or is it (b) an international organization - a quasi-UN for soccer?

Either way, it needs checks and balances. If it's (a), it needs to be regulated, plain and simple. If you ever needed a lesson for why that's a good idea, you may want to check the value of your home. But that's tricky unless we leave this task to the Swiss authorities (since FIFA is headquartered in Z├╝rich).

I don't think it's (a), or wants to be a for profit corporation (even if it often acts like one). So, if it's (b), it's an INGO (international non-governmental organization), where the members aren't countries (or states) but national organizations (kinda like the Internatonal Red Cross).

So how is FIFA the INGO run? One way to take a look at that is to see if there is accountability – or at least the potential for it. Accountability is important for ensuring high quality decisionmaking – or simply a way to throw out the rascals who run FIFA if they run the organization into the ground.

So we're back to the statutes. Reading the statutes helps, albeit only a bit. Turns out, they’re quite detailed – some 80 pages long – and there’s a lot in there that sounds very familiar to political scientists. Words like election (occurring 11 times), ballot (17), vote or voting (59), legal (17) or appeal (27) should be familiar to anyone who’s taken Political Science 101. They’re also terms we typically associate with democratic ideals and accountability. 

But of course, as in any democratic system, the practice of FIFA rule is quite a bit different from the ideal. One way to see if there is in fact accountability is to see if there is alternation in office. Take a look.
For starters, in its 106 year history, FIFA has had 8 Presidents (one of which served only one year – the Belgian Rodolphe Seeldrayers – and died in office and another one – the first one, Robert Guerin of France – served only two years). This compares to 19 Presidents of the USA or 25 British Prime Ministers. With the unfortunate Monsieur Seeldrayers and the inaugural Robert Guerin included, this means that the average FIFA President has served 12.75 years in office (without Seeldrayers 14.4 years, and without Seeldrayers or Guerin 16.5 years). 

Obviously, this is far from conclusive evidence, but there is clearly precious little alternation in office within FIFA. And, I suspect, that is just how the functionaries of national soccer associations like it. Call me crazy, but time spent in office for FIFA presidents looks more similar to Third World dictators than what we prefer in the West. Sepp Blatter has come a long way from presiding over the World Society of the Friends of Suspenders to heading up FIFA - perhaps someone else equally qualified can be persuaded to run the show. But I digress: So who regulates the regulator? Does FIFA need supervision?