In their pockets: new governance in football

23 Mar 23

The ugly side of the beautiful game has tainted football’s image. Will new governance repair it?


“Excellencies, dignitaries, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, fans of football around the world…” 

With these words, former FIFA president Sepp Blatter made the announcement that would change football forever – that Russia was to host the World Cup in 2018, followed by Qatar in 2022. 

Among the heads of state, oligarchs and royalty gathered at the federation’s Zurich headquarters on that December day back in 2010, the jubilant Russian and Qatari delegations celebrated a lucrative victory.

But the decision to award football’s most prestigious event to two oil-rich nations with dubious records on discrimination and human rights sparked new allegations of bribery and corruption within the sport.

Five years later, senior FIFA officials were arrested and data and documents seized in a raid by Swiss authorities on the organisation’s headquarters. 

The investigation into claims of criminal mismanagement in the allocation of World Cup hosting rights coincided with a wider-ranging probe by the US Justice Department into historic allegations of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering within FIFA.

Meanwhile, as last year’s controversial World Cup was reaching its climax on the pitch, Qatar was at the centre of another corruption scandal – this time threatening to engulf the European Parliament.

Four people – including former parliament vice-president Eva Kaili – were charged by Belgian prosecutors investigating suspected bribery on the part of the Gulf state, which was accused of seeking to influence the decisions of European lawmakers with cash and gifts.

Qatar denies wrongdoing, but European Parliament president Roberta Metsola was forced to take rapid action to defend the integrity of the institution, promising to “shine a brighter light” on the activities of members with a package of measures to improve transparency and accountability.

Red card

The scandal has raised difficult questions about the vulnerability of large international organisations to the threat of corruption.

According to Dan Hough, professor of politics at the University of Sussex and co-author of Understanding Corruption: How Corruption Works in Practice, criticism of the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar should be directed at FIFA, which set the rules, and not the desert state, which played by them.

“The Qataris would say they played the game every other country does that wants to win the World Cup,” he says. “FIFA is the problem – delegates who milked the system for their own profit in a way that ultimately led to Qatar winning the bid.”

Indeed, since the Swiss raids, 11 of the 22 FIFA committee members who voted on the 2018 and 2022 tournaments have been fined, suspended, banned for life or prosecuted for corruption.

Events in Zurich pushed corruption in sport right to the top of the UK political agenda, with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport challenged about the government’s role in tackling corruption in the light of the FIFA scandal. 

“When those raids were happening, we were being asked urgent questions in parliament,” says Hitesh Patel, former head of international sport, major sports events and sports integrity at DCMS. The high-profile anti-corruption summit hosted by then-prime minister David Cameron in 2016 shone a spotlight on the scourge of corruption in world sport, he adds.

“The Qataris would say they played the game every other country does that wants to win the World Cup”



Off the back of the summit, the government committed to introducing a new code for sports governance that would set out the standards publicly funded bodies must meet to qualify for public funding.

“We needed to make sure we were also keeping our own house in order,” says Patel, who is now executive director at the Sport for Development Coalition, a movement of organisations working to maximise the positive social impact of sport.



The government worked with UK Sport to convene what has become the International Partnership against Corruption in Sport, bringing together representatives from governments around the world, as well as bodies such as the International Olympic Committee, FIFA, OECD, the Council of Europe and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

In response to widespread criticism, FIFA has brought in a raft of reforms to address concerns about its ability to safeguard the integrity of the world’s biggest game. The federation says the election of Gianni Infantino as its president in 2016 heralded a transformation in how it runs its affairs.

“FIFA has gone from being toxic, almost criminal, to what it should be – a solid and well respected organisation that develops football,” says a FIFA spokesperson.

“[It] has implemented extensive reforms and taken concrete steps to regain its reputation as a credible institution that champions the interests of football around the world, while setting a new benchmark in terms of sports governance. Above all, since 2016, FIFA has made massive strides to improve transparency – in particular, financial transparency and business performance.”

Key to its programme of reform has been the introduction of a revamped bidding process, built on “clear evaluation”, which was in place for the selection of the US, Canada and Mexico to host the World Cup in 2026.

“The final decision is now made by the 211 member associations in an open vote at the FIFA Congress, as opposed to a secret vote by the executive committee in the past,” he says.



Hough, though, remains unconvinced, particularly by FIFA’s commitment to openness in the way it does business.

“It is moving, but I don’t think we’ve had the epiphany – the real acknowledgement that there is a serious issue that requires serious change. Deep down, if you want transparency, you have got to be prepared to allow people to look, [but] FIFA doesn’t really embrace that.” 

Indeed, FIFA’s behaviour over the past three decades might mean there is good reason for observers to keep a close eye on the organisation, but, far from being a cause for defensiveness, it should be seen as a positive catalyst for change, he says. “You’ve got to swallow some bitter pills, be prepared to be a bit more open, take what comes your way, and then you start to reform.”

However, Patel’s assessment of progress to date on the international stage is one of slow but steady improvement, with the commitments required by FIFA of bidding nations “quite different” from how they would have looked over a decade ago.

In an increasingly fragmented landscape, which sees more and more sports vying for viewers’ attention, governing bodies are strongly motivated to avoid doing anything to damage the reputation and therefore the commercial interests of their sport, he says.

“If you want to create a positive cultural change, that takes a long time – you’re never going to see something happen overnight. But we are in the midst of that journey and things are progressing relatively well,” Patel adds.

In England, a fan-led review chaired by former sports minister Tracey Crouch in 2021 concluded that an independent regulator was needed to improve football’s governance and financial resilience. The idea is strongly backed by former prime minister Gordon Brown. “The appointment of an independent regulator would help to restore integrity in the game and root out any corruption,” he tells PF.

Learn from the past – Baseball’s darkest hour

In 1919, the world of baseball was rocked by a notorious game-fixing scandal that stained the reputation of the sport – spawning books, movies and a debate that still rages a century on.

Suspicions were raised when the Chicago White Sox – favourites to lift the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds – lost the tournament five games to three after an uncharacteristically lacklustre performance.

Eight White Sox players were later accused of conspiring with a gambling syndicate, led by Arnold Rothstein, to throw the series – including star outfielder ‘Shoeless Joe’ Jackson, whose role in the affair is still disputed.

Despite acquittal in a public trial two years later, all eight were banned for life from professional baseball. The team would not win another American League championship for 40 years.


“As well as publishing regular reports into the state of football and why money is not cascading down into the rest of the game, a regulator would influence the kind of people who would be welcomed into football. The role of a regulator is not to stop clubs securing revenues but to make sure the long-term interests of the game and of supporters are not ignored,” Brown adds.

Hough believes there is “a lot of mileage” in the idea of helping the professional game to better regulate itself and tackling the culture of mismanagement, which has seen more than 60 clubs in England and Wales enter administration since the 1980s.

“The real way forward is regulating who can own football clubs and what they can do with the clubs when they get there,” he adds.

This could soon be a reality. A leaked government white paper seen by The Sun in February revealed that a proposed football charter will mean that multi-millionaires who cannot prove the source of their wealth won’t be able to compete takeovers. Publication of the white paper, delayed by the Conservative upheaval last summer, has been pushed back again owing to volume of other business.



For the EU, too, the Qatar scandal could prove to be the trigger for deeper and more far-reaching improvements in governance. Alberto Alemanno, law professor at the HEC Paris business school and founder of The Good Lobby, says none of the proposals on the table go far enough to tackle the “original sin” of EU ethics rules, which is that their enforcement is entrusted to the political, rather than legal, authority 
of the EU Parliament’s president.

He is calling on the EU to replace its current weak and fragmented arrangements with a single, permanent and independent ethics body.

“Unlike any of the existing EU ethics bodies, the newly established body would be, first, independent and, second, competent to ensure the enforcement of [rules against] unethical behaviour,” says Alemanno.

The fallout over Qatar may at least have the benefit of finally bringing the governance of organisations such as FIFA and the EU into the light of public scrutiny – where sunlight can prove itself the supreme disinfectant. 

Honesty box

Truthfulness might be a better basis than wealth for lucrative hosting rights

Who can you trust? In 2016, when a high-profile summit flagged up corruption in international sport, the Reputation Institute ranked Sweden, Canada and Switzerland as the most reputable countries in the world.

The elements needed are an advanced economy, appealing environment and an effective government that is perceived to be trustworthy by its own people.

According to Reader’s Digest research, if the organisers of major sporting tournaments assessed the honesty of prospective hosts as much as the depth of their pockets, lucrative hosting rights might well be handed to Switzerland, Norway and the Netherlands. Researchers handed in over 17,000 wallets at public and private institutions in 355 cities across the world, claiming to have found them on a street corner. They then waited to see whether recipients contacted the owner, whose name and email address were inside, to hand the wallet back.

The results revealed a staggering gap between the 40 nations surveyed. More than three-quarters of recipients in Switzerland attempted to return the wallet, closely followed by Norway and the Netherlands, while in the nations at the other end of the scale – China, Mexico and Peru – as few as 14% of recipients did so.

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