The Dark Side of FIFA: Selected controversies and the future of accountability in the organization

The Dark Side of FIFA

Written by Christina Malliris
Edited by John Shin, Emmeline Yoo and Leah Ling

Back to FIFA Institutional Politics

FIFA controversy: it’s not a new concept within the world of soccer. But recently, with the riots in Brazil before the 2014 World Cup, and the arguments over the 2022 World Cup bid, it appears prudent to take a closer look at some of the more recent controversies with FIFA and what they signify about the world’s foremost soccer authority. Because we’ve discussed the Brazil situation at length on this site, and there’s plenty of good blog and media coverage(especially here at Christopher Gaffney’s excellent blog) I will be focusing on other controversies FIFA has had in the past as well as focusing on what they can do to remedy the situation in the future.

One cannot say that FIFA is merely a body related to soccer: their work necessarily entangles them with international relations and human rights. Apart from being admitted to the UN, “membership of FIFA…is the clearest signal that a country’s status as a nation state has been recognized by the international community.” [1]. Due to the popularity of soccer and the buying power of the World Cup, FIFA exerts quite an important influence over the rest of the world. Simply to give a few examples, their acts in South Africa near the end of apartheid contributed to the end of such problematic system; when Nigeria was finally  allowed into the league, it signaled a major breakthrough for the national unity of the country[2]. But as Peter Parker’s uncle said, with great power comes great responsibility—a responsibility that FIFA may not quite be fulfilling. When FIFA was first created, it was “as much a gentleman’s club as it was an international bereaucracy”[3]. Many would argue that not much has changed in this regard. In the past decade a slew of books and reports have come out detailing the inner corruption of FIFA’s top executives, including Foul! The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging, and Ticket Scandals, and a book I use in this blog post by Sugden and Tomlinson: FIFA and the Contest for World Football: who rules the people’s game?. With multiple authors writing books about the rampant corruption in FIFA, it behooves the organization  to take a look at some of their policies; and yet FIFA has not appeared to address these issues in any sort of comprehensive manner over the years. Let’s take a look.

A general overview of some important controversies:


Qatar 2022: They say if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the fire; but what if you have to play soccer inside it? Qatar’s temperatures in the summer can reach 122 degrees. [4] And FIFA has decided to shift the schedule to Winter 2022, with the World Cup Final reputedly being played on the night before Christmas Eve, risking major schedule clashes with other sporting events, not to mention time spent with family. Considering the other countries that put in bids with the expectation of having it in the summer in their countries, this seems both unfair and silly. Furthermore, the tiny country does not yet have the infrastructure to support this endeavor, meaning they must build everything from scratch–a strange place for a World Cup when there are many other countries who have plenty of infrastructure to accommodate the event. However, with the venue chosen, Qatar is forging ahead at breakneck speed to be ready. And we all know that trying to keep labor as cheap as possible leads to…

Labor Disputes: Qatar isn’t the first place to use shady labor practices in a World Cup building effort, but the continued deaths of the Nepalese who are working on the sites is certainly the freshest example of such abuses. South Africa saw worker’s strikes over allegations that the workers were working more than 18 hours a day, for 190 rand, which is about 20 Euro. [3]. The over-scheduled expansion processes of the Sao Paolo airport in Brazil to anticipate increased traffic has lead to an investigation by the BBC which found migrant workers living in poor conditions nearby under very little payment [5].  And now, of course, we have Qatar, in which no fewer than fifteen Nepalese construction workers for World Cup facilities died during 2014 [6], but FIFA still remains reluctant to admit that there might be something wrong with their construction techniques. Even more astounding, “the International Trade Union Confederation estimates that 4,000 [workers] will perish by the time the project is ready” in 2022. This is concerning in a country that has over a million migrant Nepalese workers, many of whom were promised a much better life than the one they had. Contracts are often in English or Arabic, and the Nepalese workers rarely ask many questions in fear of losing the job. Consequently, they are trapped in a contract that gives them no rights. While Sepp Blatter, current president of the FIFA, has insisted that FIFA is ‘talking’ with Qatar, FIFA has apparently done nothing but talk, with little to no actual intervention [7]. They are the body who has tasked the country to undertake these projects by themselves. Qatar isn’t going to stop these practices if there’s no recrimination–they are under enormous pressure to perform. If these labor practices are left unchecked, 2022 is on track to be deemed a “blood-stained World Cup”.

The issue of protection of rights and the well-being of the laborers that FIFA is reluctant to actively confront extends not only to the laborers off the pitch, but also those on the pitch. Because of the huge monetary success that soccer brings to the star players, and an element of hope that it brings among the poor, the exploitation of these prospective soccer players by corrupted agents or coaches have become increasingly a concerning issue in soccer community, as highlighted in Vanguard’s documentary, Soccer’s Lost Boys [18]. However, despite numerous media bringing this issue to public eyes, FIFA has yet to issue a proactive, definitive statement or plans to directly confront the issue of human trafficking done in the name of soccer players. Their interest seems to remain primarily on the ready-made stars, ignoring the fact that thousands of others prospective players who are exploited and abandoned by those who exploit them.

Institutional Controversies and Financial Mismanagement: FIFA, as with any other political bodies, has a set internal order and a constitution. In one of our sister pages, we talked about how FIFA is organized and run, but the actual outcome of the bureaucratic process has caused its fair share of complaints. The organization is the face of football on the planet and controls the media rights and placement of the World Cup; because of this, it holds enormous power and billions of dollars in its sway. Enlightened from the recent human rights abuses, many are saying that FIFA is self-serving and power hungry. These allegations are further amplified by FIFA’s long history of questionable financial practices.  in 2002-2003, allegations of corruption and financial mismanagement [8] were brought to light by general secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen, whose accusations included misleading accounting practices and financial improprieties. Sepp Blatter was featured prominently in this report, being accused of taking over the management of the organization in an illegal manner and manipulating it for the benefit of third party organizations [9]. Further signs of corruption continued to emerge with the executive board scandal surrounding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in 2010, where several members were accused of corruption and bribery surrounding the votes for the winning bidders. Mohammad bin Hammam, who was in the running to be President of FIFA, left the organization after major allegations sprang up that he had bribed several FIFA officials in order to secure Qatar’s bid, reportedly offering 40,000 dollars to members of the Carribean Football Union. [10] (this, incidentally, allowed Sepp Blatter to run unopposed, which you can read about here). Bin Hammam denied all the claims, even bringing up the common complaint of European favoritism in his defense, but let’s be real: admitting to the claims is going to be the last thing he would do. Furthermore, Bin Hammam isn’t the only one under accusations of corruption. Four other FIFA members have been brought up on allegations of bribery in the past few years, including Paraguay’s Nicolás Leoz, who demanded British knighthood in exchange for a vote [11]. Such ludicrous reactions only serve to reflect just how deep the issue of corruption is within FIFA. Of course, none of this is helped by…

Game improvements: It’s one thing to be getting in a slew of trouble for controversial actions that deal with finances and elections, but it’s entirely another to be making questionable decisions about the game itself and the fans who drive it popularity. FIFA has come under fire for some missed calls and referee troubles in the past few world cups, but instead of focusing on improving the refereeing or adding technology to the mix, they came up with another, more brilliant move: simply stop showing the replays. [12]. How wonderful would it be if ignorance was the ultimate answer to all problems!

In terms of fairness in general, FIFA has been dragging its feet over adding any type of assistive technology to the game, even though people had been calling for years for goal-line technology that would definitively prove when the ball had crossed the goal line. In 2010, in South Africa, they refused to even bring up the topic of video technology in the midst of the missed-goal controversies [13].  It wasn’t until 2012 that Blatter finally deemed it a necessity in the game after a Ukrainian-England match saw an official miss a Ukrainian goal. The timing of this comment sparked more controversies, particularly in England after they lost out to Russia in the 2018 World Cup bid; “Blatter and FIFA have taken a slow path to an inevitable conclusion despite regular examples of why a new system is needed.”[14] Perhaps it seems like a small matter, but it demonstrates how out of touch the upper echelons of FIFA remain to the fans and changing realities of soccer. No one has been able to force FIFA to move faster, and it is frustrating that an organization that runs the “people’s game” is so impervious to the desires of the people.

Sepp Blatter’s poor taste in humor: Speaking of less-than-intelligent moves by the executive board, Sepp again has to be mentioned for his wildly inappropriate comments in the public arena. I quoted him in this article about international women’s soccer, and that’s only the beginning; in response to LGBT concerns, due to Qatar’s admittedly backwards views on such matters, he thoughfully and tactfully responded with “I would say they should refrain from any sexual activities.”; in response to a match fixing scandal in Italy, he said “I could understand if it happened in Africa, but not in Italy” [15]. In 2004, he made a public statement suggesting that women’s soccer would be more appealing if “they could, for example, wear tighter shorts” and “wear more feminine clothing” and consequently insulted the entire community of female soccer players. How brilliant is his idea that the things he would say in front of his bathroom mirror would be just as fine to say out in public!

All jokes aside, Sepp is the head of an organization that is going through a time of crisis, and public relations are especially important at this point. Elected in 1998, his reign as head of FIFA has largely been an endless string of allegations of corruption. For a public figure that has been dogged by accusations of corruption and controversy, he is surprisingly blithe about what he says. And he should almost certainly watch his back: there are numerous petitions out on several sites calling for his resignation [16].

Ballon d’Or: 

 The Ballon d’Or is an annual award that is granted to the player with the best overall performance in league and national play. Since its establishment in 2010, the Ballon d’Or has been granted to only two players: Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo has been the most recent winner of the accolade, winning it for the second time to Messi’s three wins. The award has only been granted to two players in the past four years which contributes to critics claiming that it is a foundational error of FIFA not granting the prize to the player who deserves it most. The Ballon d’Or appears to be a popularity contest, and the selection process exhibits a lot of room for corruption and rigging.

In an article written by Goal columnist Carlos Garganese, a multitude of players, notably Franck Ribery, lament the extreme political nature of the Ballon d’Or. For example, most recently, in November 2014 when Ronaldo displayed a stunning hat-trick in the playoff against Sweden, FIFA extended the voting deadline from the original November 15th to November 29th. Public opinion shifts drastically with events closest to the voting date, and it appeared that Ronaldo would most certainly seal a Ballon d’Or win if the deadline were extended to take into account his performance in the playoff. Furthermore, a sound media presence and a formidable group of sponsors apparently also contribute to a win. Messi and Ronaldo are the global faces of Adidas and Nike, respectively and are consistently publicized in advertisements and commercials. Without a doubt, FIFA certainly gives the impression that talent will not guarantee a win.


Where can FIFA go from here?

Many sponsors and partners of FIFA have called for reformation in the face of the allegations of controversy in the past few years—and who can blame them.

Sepp is moving in the right direction with his recent outcry of the worker’s situation in Qatar in the face of an Amnesty International report, but it’s definitely not enough. He has given complete control to the Qatar authorities to stop and control the practices—the same people that are under enormous pressure to have beautiful stadiums ready for their World Cup. This, I feel, is a major conflict of interest in any sense of the term[6].

There is also optimism from some about the current members about replacing the old guard that is typically seen as incredibly corrupt. Mark Pieth, for instance, is a Swiss law professor who was hired by Blatter to look into the practices at the top of the organization, and while he says the departure of those who had been accused of corruption is a good start, he mentions that  “We underestimated that this is a purely self-regulated body”[6] This, perhaps, is what lies at the heart of FIFA’s issues. Who is there to tell them they cannot award a World Cup to a country or overlook human rights abuses? There is no system of checks and balances amongst the soccer elite, and we can hardly argue that the system is working.

Why should we care? An excellent research paper out of the University of Colorado recently broached that subject in regards to the problem of holding FIFA accountable. As they said, “Accountability of FIFA matters for the governance of the sport, the business of football and to the larger issue of the accountability of international organizations” [17]. Soccer may be simply a game; but, with its overwhelming popularity and international reach, it has its feet in international politics, human rights, major business transactions, and many other categories. If the governing body of this sport is not conducting business with integrity, it would certainly have a negative effect on the other things that football is a part of. So what do our plucky authors suggest?

There are several different types of accountability according to the article—Public, peer, hierarchical, supervisory, fiscal, market, and legal,. FIFA is severely lacking in nearly all of them. In terms of public or peer accountability, FIFA has nothing to worry about: the public is far removed from the top of the executive board in terms of power, and FIFA has no real peers besides the IOC, whom they are not accountable to. As we have mentioned before, their hierarchy is incredibly self-serving and self-contained: they have no one they must report to and no checks and balances within their system. In terms of supervisory accountability, FIFA has member nations that can vote and sway the system, but with stringent supermajority requirements and the ability of FIFA to suspend various football programs, there is little incentive to fight back. The fiscal system has already been exposed as highly corrupt, and though FIFA has many corporate sponsors that could theoretically deter funding, those companies are unlikely to give up their ties with such a powerful ally. The only real accountability they have is legal accountability, in which there has been some success in getting FIFA to pay up or change practices. But even this is a slow and inefficient process. In short, FIFA doesn’t have an obligation to adhere to pretty much any other organization. [17].

There must be a system of checks and balances in the FIFA system in order to fix this problem. Someone has to hold them accountable, and these protests may just be the beginning of that movement. But until there emerges some form of organization large enough to threaten the executive board and higherups at FIFA with real consequences, it is likely that the blunders that we have seen in the past few decades will continue to occur. The world may love soccer, but at some point we are going to have to ask if we love it more than justice.

How to cite this article: “The Dark Side of FIFA: Selected controversies and the future of accountability in the organization” Written by Christina Malliris (2013), World Cup 2014, Soccer Politics Blog, (accessed on (date)).

Sources for more information

[1] Sugden, John Peter., and Alan Tomlinson. FIFA and the Contest for World Football: Who Rules the People’s Game? Cambridge, UK: Polity, 1998. Print.

[2] Alegi, Peter. African Soccerscapes: How a Continent Changed the World’s Game. Athens: Ohio UP, 2010. Print.

[3] Goldblatt, David. The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Soccer. New York: Riverhead, 2008. Print.

[4] “Qatar World Cup Controversy: Bribes, Slavery and Alcohol.” The Week UK, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2013.

[5] “Security Guards in South Africa: Labor Conditions Are ‘Almost Like Apartheid'” SPIEGEL ONLINE. Spiegel, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2013.

 [6] BBC. “Brazil World Cup Workers ‘face Slave-like Conditions'” BBC News. British Broadcasting Company, 26 Sept. 2013. Web. 03 Dec. 2013.

[7] Booth, Robert. “Qatar World Cup 2022: 70 Nepalese Workers Die on Building Sites.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 02 Oct. 2013. Web. 01 Dec. 2013.

 [8] CNN. “Sepp Blatter: ‘Qatar Working Conditions Unacceptable'” CNN. Cable News Network, 21 Nov. 2013. Web. 02 Dec. 2013.

[9] Peart, Harry. “Blatter Could Face Corruption Probe.” BBC News. BBC, 05 Apr. 2002. Web. 02 Dec. 2013.

[10] CNN. “FIFA Set Date for Bin Hammam Appeal.” CNN. Cable News Network, 01 Sept. 2011. Web. 25 Nov. 2013.

[11] “One Wanted a Knighthood! Lord Triesman Accuses Four FIFA Members of Corruption.” Mail Online. Daily Mail, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2013.

[12] Davis, Glenn. “FIFA’s Plan To Quash Bad Call Controversy: Censor In-Stadium Replays.”SportsGrid RSS. SportsGrid, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2013.

[13]Bandini, Paolo. “World Cup 2010: Fifa Refuse to Enter Video Technology Debate.” Guardian News and Media, 28 June 2010. Web. 08 Dec. 2013.

[14] Peck, Brooks. “Sepp Blatter Suddenly Thinks Goal-line Technology Is ‘a Necessity'” Yahoo Sports., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2013.

[15] Joynson, Danielle. “Sepp Blatter’s Top Ten Outrageous Quotes.” Sports Mole. Sports Mole, 17 Nov. 2011. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.

[16] Atkins, James. “Petition to Sepp Blatter and FIFA for the Resignation of Sepp Blatter.”Campaigns by You. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2013.

[17] Pielke, Roger, Jr. “How Can FIFA Be Held Accountable.” Sport Management Review 16 (2013): 255-67. ScienceDIrect. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

[18] A. Yamaguchi, J. Frankel. (2010). Vanguard, Season 4 Episode 4 “Soccer’s Lost Boys“, United States, Current TV


Picture Credits

Getty Images. Red Alert: Protestors Gather outside FIFA’s Headquarters in Zurich. N.d. Photograph. The Telegraph. The Telegraph. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.

 Getty Images. Clutching on to Power! FIFA President Sepp Blatter Faces a Fight from Asian Football Supremo Mohamed Bin Hammam for His Role This Summer. N.d. Photograph. The Daily Mail. Web. 8 Dec. 2013.

9 thoughts on “The Dark Side of FIFA: Selected controversies and the future of accountability in the organization

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  3. lokee

    Very nice post… I have come to know about the history of FIFA… this is really a big organization….. this is really a interesting post…. I am interested in these type of articles… can you provide me some knowledge about such type of articles, further?

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  5. Hyun Moh (John) Shin

    This is a highly intriguing article; a good narrative on real issues going on in the world of soccer. I’d like to edit this page for the Editing Project due March 3rd; would this be enough on my part, or would I need another page or two to edit?

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  7. Laurent Dubois

    Very nicely done, Christina: good thematic organization, excellent citations (both the notes and hyperlinks are useful). The only issue is the images, which don’t seem to have links or information about the source. Can you provide those?


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