Earlier this month, FIFA met with officials from the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) and the Spanish government to address allegations of state interference in the affairs of the country’s soccer administration. The issue surfaced last year, when the Spanish Sports Council’s (CSD) insisted that new elections be called for the presidency of the RFEF following the detainment and arrest of Angel Maria Villar, who was alleged with collusion, embezzlement and falsifying documents. FIFA flagged the firing as a possible act of political interference.
Separation of Soccer and State
According to FIFA’s statutes, national associations are obligated to regulate all aspects of the sport’s organization and development autonomously, without outside interference from the government or any other parties. To this end, FIFA partners only with associations that are free of influence from state governments.
In the past, this statute has resulted in bans on Kuwait, Indonesia, Nigeria, Bosnia, and Iraq.
In 2017, Pakistan and Mali were added to the list. Pakistan was banned for appointing the Pakistani Football Federation’s head through the state court, while Mali was banned when the federal sports minister fired the Mali Football Federation’s executive committee.
While the ongoing case against the FREF will not likely result a repercussion as serious as disqualification from the World Cup, the investigation nevertheless represents a significant measure in FIFA’s enforcement against state interference. Despite this, FIFA’s enforcement against state interference remains irresolute.
In China, the government consistently involves itself in the affairs of the national team and professional soccer league without penalty from FIFA. In light of both the recent controversies surrounding FIFA and increasing presence of China on the international soccer stage, there is a pressing need for FIFA to intervene.
China’s Entrance on the Soccer Stage
Since joining FIFA in 1979, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) has claimed to be a non-governmental and a nonprofit organization, despite being the same bureau as the Management Center of Football, which is a department of the Chinese State General Administration of Sports. State involvement was largely overlooked. FIFA had its own goals for growth, and China represented a large potential market. Further, the nation’s team and league had only a marginal presence.
In 2015, president Xi Jinping’s proclaimed that China is targeting to become a “world soccer superpower,” and that the nation will host and win a World Cup by 2050. This goal is coupled with a massive spending plan that will amount to billion over the coming years. In addition to direct state funding, private companies have made large investments in the sport to toady to Chinese government by contributing to this goal. The Chinese Super League has become notorious for awarding massive transfer fees and lucrative contracts.
Further, China remains of the few countries still bidding to host World Cups, despite the huge expenses of doing so. With FIFA in financial danger, the organization has much to lose if its relations with China are damaged. Struggling to find sponsors for this upcoming World Cup in Russia, FIFA managed to fill the void with Chinese companies, which are inextricably tied to the government. The Chinese sponsors, Yadea, Mengniu Dairy, Hisense, Vivo, Wanda Group and Alibaba, will receive be receiving a range of benefits, including LED exposure during the competition, access to tickets and brand association rights for its region. Meanwhile, Sony, Emirates, Castrol, Continental and Johnson & Johnson all opted not to renew deals that expired after the 2014 World Cup following the recent corruption scandal. Chinese firms capitalized on this opportunity, reflecting the growing presence of the country on the international soccer stage.
Walking a Fine Line
While China’s increased investment in soccer is beneficial in many ways, involvement from the government could set a dangerous precedent and further hurt FIFA’s already damaged public image. At the same time, FIFA finds itself limited by its financial position, complicating the decision to act on China’s state interference violations.
Speaking on the issue of state interference, FIFA Director of Member Associations and Development, Thierry Regenass, assured that the organization “has decided that all associations should conform to the FIFA statutes.” Yet, it is clear that FIFA remains hesitant. Regenass continued that “it’s an ongoing process where associations are reforming their statutes, including associations of non-democratic countries. Of course not all of them have gone through this yet. In some places it’s faster than others.”
In becoming a more prominent figure in international soccer, China should also look toward systematic reform. Despite massive investments, the nation’s soccer program has been marked by underachievement. Perhaps with internal motivation and appropriate pressure from FIFA, China could come to grasps with the need deviate from the authoritarian system that has stunted the development of the nation’s soccer program. On FIFA’s end, the organization must face the challenge of balancing financial necessity with organizational values, which proves more relevant than ever as the soccer landscape undergoes radical transformation.