FIFA Needs a Referee: A Lesson on Corruption

Nicolas Espinosa

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2024

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) deserves praise for growing the beautiful game of soccer since their founding in 1904; however, today the international governing body needs fixing. FIFA exists to govern international football and to develop the game around the world. While FIFA preaches access and inclusivity, it has been plagued by corruption from the inside.

Soccer is the world’s game. The 2022 FIFA World Cup hosted by Qatar has a projected audience of 5 billion people. FIFA is the international governing body of soccer – boasting 209 members, comparable to that of the United Nations.

FIFA has been at the center of such lavish growth, but the organization has been plagued by corruption in recent decades. The organization needs serious structural and cultural change to maintain the trust and respect of the international football community.

FIFA profile

FIFA has grown recently into a massive entity. FIFA has achieved a gross domestic product gain of more than $180 billion over a 16-year period. The bulk of FIFA’s revenue comes through the sale of television, marketing, and licensing rights for football events like the World Cup. FIFA had $776.5 million in 2021 revenue, a 187 percent increase from 2020. However, $60 million dollars of 2021 revenues came by compensation from the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) for losses suffered due to decades of football corruption schemes. Here, the corruption was done through FIFA by certain individuals to the entity’s own detriment.

While FIFA has been the victim of corruption, the brand has been tarnished by corruption from the inside. For a massive international governing body to be effective, it must be structured with a balance of power.

A history of corruption

In 2010, Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup and Qatar received the 2022 hosting rights. This news came days after the BBC broadcasts a Panorama expose of FIFA, claiming senior officials at FIFA, who went on to vote on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids, took bribes during the 1990s.

A year later FIFA suspended presidential candidate Mohamed Bin Hammam after he was found guilty of bribery and banned from all football activities for life. Allegations against Hammam continued in the summer of 2014. The Sunday Times reported to possess “hundreds of millions” of documents that revealed Hammam had made payments to football officials in return for votes for Qatar.

US attorney Michael Garcia had been appointed head of FIFA’s ethics committee and during the fall of 2014 he completed a 430-page report on corruption allegations and submitted it to FIFA. FIFA then published a summary of Garcia’s report and concluded that breaches by Russia and Qatar’s World Cup bids were “of very limited scope.”

Garcia called the summary “incomplete and erroneous” and launched an appeal against it. Garcia lost his appeal and resigned as FIFA’s independent ethics investigator. Garcia later criticized FIFA’s “lack of leadership,” saying he cannot change the culture of the world governing body.

In the spring of 2014, seven FIFA officials were charged over allegations of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies over a two-year period. The officials were accused of “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted” corruption within FIFA by the U.S. DOJ. Swiss authorities then raided FIFA headquarters, gathering documents for their investigation into allegations of criminal mismanagement and money laundering in connection with the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids.

On May 27, 2015, an indictment was unsealed charging 14 FIFA officials and sports marketing executives with racketeering, honest services wire fraud, and money laundering offenses. On December 3, 2015, an additional 16 FIFA officials were charged with similar crimes.

Human rights violations in Qatar

FIFA faces continued scrutiny today with the 2022 World Cup host country of Qatar. During November 2022, strikes and boycotts have taken place in England, Spain, and Germany. Many people have been upset by violations on women’s rights, freedom of expression, sexual orientation, and the use of slave labor.

Dozens of Nepalese migrant laborers have died while enslaved in Qatar and thousands have endured labor abuse. According to documents obtained from the Nepalese embassy in Doha, at least 44 workers died between June 4, 2022, and August 8, 2022. The documents also reveal evidence of forced labor on the World Cup infrastructure project. Claims included workers not being paid for months or having their salaries retained to stop them from running away as well as being denied access to free drinking water while working in the desert heat.

FIFA faces further scrutiny, due to allegations of bribery. While it is noteworthy that Qatar will be the first Arab nation to host the World Cup. Qatar allegedly paid executives $3.7 million to secure their ability to host. Infrastructure costs are left up to host countries, which helps keep FIFA’s expenses low. The World Cup infrastructure project that ensued in Qatar included eight brand new stadiums costing $6.5 billion and a driver-less metro system costing $36 billion. Over $300 billion has been spent for the total infrastructure project. By contrast, Russia spent $14 billion when they hosted the 2018 World Cup.

A new path forward

FIFA has a long way to go in fixing its culture. Greed and corruption have overtaken what has ultimately been a successful regulatory body over its century long existence. When a regulatory body gets out of line, it is ultimately up to the criminal justice system to resolve its wrongdoing and by then, it is too late.

So, what can FIFA do internally to improve? Creating an independent arm was clearly not enough when the organization can overrule its findings as it did with Garcia. FIFA needs new leadership to come and break up its power. It can start with changes to the executive committee.

FIFA’s main decision-making body is the executive committee. The committee consists of 25 members, which is too large. When former President Sepp Blatter resigned in 2015 – after being investigated for taking bribes a decade before – he stated that “FIFA needs a profound overhaul. The size of the Executive Committee must be reduced, and its members should be elected through the FIFA Congress.” The members are simply appointed by the individual soccer confederations which has led to scandals.

A second potential solution would be to implement term limits. The last three presidents have been in power for a combined 48 years out of the organization’s 118 year history. While the UN General Assembly allows members to serve three-year terms without re-election, it is highly unlikely for such a provision to be accepted by FIFA. A reasonable provision would be two four-year term limits.

The situation for FIFA has become so grim, that it would be wise for an independent oversight organization to watch over the regulatory body. While ideal, this scenario is highly unlikely. The watch dog would likely not be approved by FIFA. Therefore, such oversight would likely need to be created by the UN or another powerful, ethical institution.

FIFA has been an overwhelmingly successful governing body for the world’s game. While FIFA would find abrupt improvements with a referee, it will likely have to improve its own game. May Qatar mark the end of such corruption and may the United States, Mexico, and Canada offer a refreshing start as hosts of the 2026 FIFA World Cup.