May 27, 2011 8:05 pm

Fifa’s own goal has changed the game

Fifa’s enemies have sat on the sidelines long enough to wonder whether football’s world governing body could ever be brought to heel.

But they could scarcely have contemplated that it might actually happen through Fifa’s own self-inflicted wounds. The power struggle between Sepp Blatter, Fifa’s president, and Mohamed bin Hammam, his challenger, which has degenerated into open warfare, comes at a time when Fifa has just scaled the financial heights.

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The organisation attracts millions of dollars in sponsorship and broadcast rights for the World Cup.

At its congress, which begins next week, Fifa will report record profits of $630m. The next two World Cups – Brazil in 2014 and Russia in 2018 – ensure that the governing body is well placed to capitalise on corporations’ hunger to exploit emerging markets.

Yet this ascendancy is the cause of some of the troubles that Fifa faces and leaves it with few friends. An overly competitive race for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups resulted in two winners – but several losers. Sponsors and broadcasters have been squeezed for more money to maintain or acquire World Cup rights. Meanwhile, the growing calendar of international matches is creating increasing tension between clubs and countries.

Until now, the sniping from the sidelines at Fifa has come exclusively with an English accent. England’s Football Association, in a loose alliance with UK parliamentarians, have cried foul over last year’s World Cup bidding process and brought specific accusations to the governing body.

But even after Fifa suspended two executive committee members last year following an investigation into corruption claims by a British newspaper, Fifa has been able to brush aside these claims as the bleatings of a bad loser.

The corruption allegations this week from within Fifa have changed the game. For years, rumours of bribes in Fifa to gain favours or votes have either never followed through or swiftly covered over by changes in personnel. But bribery claims have never before been made by one member of Fifa’s 24-strong executive committee against other members. It is hardly surprising that those accused, particularly Mr bin Hammam, have responded so vigorously.

Some on the sidelines are starting to talk about this being Fifa’s Salt Lake City moment, a reference to the reform forced upon the International Olympic Committee after allegations of bribes during the bidding process for the 2002 Winter Games threatened its relations with sponsors.

“But that is only if people keep the momentum going,” said one Fifa observer keen to see the corporate governance structure overhauled. “People really have to put the pressure on Fifa.”

For the time being, all eyes will be on Zurich this weekend, when the two presidential candidates appear before the ethics committee investigating the corruption claims rocking the governing body. Events are too fast moving to make any external pressure likely at this juncture. Fifa insiders said there was no precedent for these events, making it impossible to plan potential outcomes. There is no certainty that the presidential election, due to take place on Wednesday, will proceed.

Sponsors are said to be watching events with interest rather than concern, falling back on the concept that they are backers of the World Cup, and not Fifa. However, Adidas, Fifa’s sportswear sponsor, did say this week that “‘the negative tenor of the public debate is neither good for the sport of football nor for Fifa as an institution and its partners”.

It is a charge Mr Blatter can barely deny. But his supporters say there are two underlying philosophies to Fifa often overlooked: it is a democratic institution which gives an equal say to each and every member and that the World Cup is the only real global sports competition.

“Sponsors must be aware that they are part of a bigger thing, which is the World Cup,” says one person who has known Mr Blatter for many years.

“Fifa has grown organically, it works quite well. ”

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