Over the last few weeks there has been plenty of press coverage regarding the alleged corruption surrounding the selection of Russia and Qatar for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup Finals. FIFA and, in particular, Sepp Blatter’s refusal to publish Michael Garcia’s (Head of FIFA’s ethics investigation) report implies corruption on a monumental scale which has the ability to bring down some of football’s most influential power-brokers. Whilst there seems to be a growing clamour to expose the selection process, will it ever happen? The purpose of this blog is to understand how it will be possible to fully expose the truth behind this scandal.
It is worthwhile highlighting at this stage that, whilst there is significant coverage in the UK press, there is disproportionate interest in most other parts of the world. The UK press has led the charge against FIFA, particularly since England’s embarrassing defeat in its bid to host the 2018 tournament. Whilst there is momentum building around this story, most countries don’t really care. Therefore, as much pressure as we perceive is currently mounting on Sepp Blatter, the reality is that, given the global context, he is not about to change his stance because of the media in one relatively small country.
It seems that media pressure is not going to persuade FIFA to succumb, so does this mean that the issue is now buried forever? I would argue no, there is a significant lever still available….. sponsor’s money. If for example, Coca Cola and Visa (along with many other FIFA sponsor) colluded and advised FIFA that unless there was full transparency into this issue then they would be terminating their contract it would make FIFA reconsider their position. These two sponsors alone would result in a drop in revenue of $100m (based on their fees of the 2014 World Cup). If all of FIFA’s primary sponsors and broadcasters followed suit, there is no doubt that Blatter’s power base within FIFA would start to crumble very quickly.
Critics to this argument would point to a number of issues. First is the legality of this move and the potential to expose these sponsors to severe financial penalties by breaching their FIFA contracts. Whilst the intricacies of their contracts are confidential, given the sums involved it is safe to assume that there are termination clauses relating to illegal practises which would protect them financially and could even force FIFA to expose this report.
Secondly, unfortunately behind many sponsorship strategies is a defensive rationale to block competitors from the property, these can be nearly as influential as the positive benefits of the association. Therefore for a brand to pull out of sponsoring the World Cup could be seen as a risk as it would open the door for a competitor to replace them. However, given the global trend of a shift from corporate social responsibility to brand social responsibility consumers are increasingly influencing brands to behave more ethically. I would therefore challenge the threat that if Coca Cola, for example, were to terminate their contract with FIFA on moral grounds that Pepsi would swoop in and replace them. The risk to Pepsi would be far too great to defy Coke’s ethical stance for their own perceived commercial gain. As a result they simply wouldn’t do it. The major multinational companies, particular consumer facing, are increasingly focusing, communicating and celebrating their ethical approach to business practises. These businesses ensure that their suppliers and business partners also share and support their core ethical values. As a result, they have a considerable obligation to ensure that this extends to everyone they work with, not just the factories they source from in the third world but everyone, including FIFA.
The core foundation to any successful sponsorship is that both parties share core values, without this the programme will fail. It’s vital that FIFA’s global partners realise this from both an ethical and commercial perspective. Recently there have been statements released by some sponsors communicating that they are ‘concerned’ and ‘monitoring the situation closely’ however we hope, and expect, that behind closed doors these sponsors are taking a hard line against FIFA.
The only other potential area of influence is for the leading nations within UEFA to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia. If achievable, it would be a very powerful weapon. A World Cup without England, France, Spain, German, Holland and Italy, for example, would have such a catastrophic impact on the commercial viability of any tournament, due to the backlash from sponsors and broadcasters, that it is sure to force a re-think with those who continue to blindly support Mr Blatter. This may be idealistic and a very challenging proposition to align Europe’s most influential football associations however the integrity of the sport is in question. Given that the primary purpose of The FA is to promote the development of the game, they have an obligation to use all their influence within European football to bring about change.
So in conclusion, the only influence that is going to bring FIFA to account is sponsor and broadcaster money. As a result, on the assumption that the rest of the world eventually share’s the UK media’s obsession that FIFA should be a fully transparent body, the press, lawmakers/enforcers and public should stop trying to force Blatter to shift his position. Their focus should target sponsors, broadcasters and national football associations who are the ultimate source of power and have an obligation to the world game to leverage this position and ensure the long term integrity of the sport.