x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

To avoid becoming obsolete, Fifa must submit to reform

The governing body for international football must be reformed, before some nations judge that it is too rotten to fix and set up a rival organisation.

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

It was a Victorian desire for order that created the modern game of football. Until then it was typically played by unruly mobs in games that could last for hours and frequently involved bloodshed and fractured bones. Small wonder that some historians believe the sport metamorphosed from victory rituals by Anglo-Saxon warriors who booted around the severed heads of defeated Danes.

By 1863, a group of former public (that is privately educated) schoolboys had brought order to chaos with a set of agreed rules and, in the same year at a tavern in London's Covent Garden, the Football Association, the sport's first official body, was born.

The game rapidly spread around the world, but it was another 40 years before the creation in Geneva, Switzerland, of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, now more generally known as Fifa. The British initially thought themselves too grand to recognise the authority of a bunch of foreigners, and indeed refused to take part in the Fifa World Cup until 1950 on very much those grounds.

Back in December, Fifa's executive committee awarded the World Cup for 2018 to Russia and 2022 to Qatar. Almost immediately the mutterings against foreigners could once again be heard in sections of the British media, a response to England's failed bid for 2018 but also to a conviction that football's highest authority was rotten to the core.

Nearly six months later, those suspicions are much more widespread. Of the 24 members of Fifa's executive committee, 10 have faced investigation over ethics. They include Sepp Blatter, the current president, since cleared, and his sole challenger in this year's election, Mohamed bin Hammam, the president of the Asian Football Confederation, and now suspended pending a fuller inquiry.

To the average football fan, these machinations seem disturbing and baffling in equal measure. Football is a tribal game; it is, in that useful phrase, "war without weapons", an expression of national pride in triumph or, as often, despair. It is your country, right or wrong. It is not about greed or corruption.

The Brazilian football team is the Brazilian nation. So it is in France, Argentina, South Korea, really anywhere where the beautiful game is played. When the UAE won the Gulf Cup of Nations four years ago, ecstatic fans danced along the Abu Dhabi Corniche until the early hours.

But if patriotism is so important to the fans, it could hardly be less important to the inner workings of the game. Unlike other international bodies based in Geneva - the Red Cross, Unesco, the World Heath Organisation - Fifa is essentially a very large and powerful private organisation. Fifa's executive committee is elected by the organisation's 208-strong congress, itself composed of a delegate from each national association. Those associations may claim to represent individual nations, but they have no mandate in the sense that a government does. And the fans certainly have no say in the matter.

What seems to be important is money. The spread of football around the globe means that Fifa has become a financial colossus. In the past four years, the organisation has made US$4.189 billion (Dh15.46bn), of which a large percentage came from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. With such a prize at stake, the danger of corruption is ever-present.

It is not clear yet if Fifa will be forced to submit to reform, although pressure from corporate sponsors, which provide most of its income, seems the best hope. It must become more transparent. Without this, there is real danger that the organisation could break apart; that some nations will judge the edifice too rotten to fix and set up a rival organisation.

Without reform, it could be said that even those Anglo Saxon warriors kicking around the heads of defeated Danes have more claim to represent the true spirit of the international game.