In most countries it is recognized as one of the world’s most powerful organizations. This spring, it is celebrating its 100th anniversary with pomp and circumstance, including photo exhibitions, emotive tributes and a flurry of press attention.
Yet FI FA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, international soccer’s governing body, is virtually unknown here in the United States.
Almost everywhere else—in France, Brazil or Iran—soccer fans regard the acronym with a mixture of dread an d respect. FIFA’s sole business, since it was launched in Paris in 1904, is overseeing the corrupt and unruly multi-billion dollar business of international soccer.
The federation has a classic pyramidal structure. It grants membership to one soccer ass ociation from any “independent state recognized by the international community.” A new state, like East Timor (which still has not been accepted into the “FIFA family”) must apply to FIFA for recognition if it wants to participate in world soccer. This st ructure guarantees FIFA monopoly power over the sport.
Today, it has 205 members—New Caledonia being the most recent addition—all associations. These, in turn, typically field national teams and organize internal leagues and club teams.
With this stru cture, FIFA was global long before globalization became a buzzword. Before World War II, then-president Jules Rimet was fond of pointing out that FIFA already had more members than the League of Nations.
FIFA exercises incredible influence over a countr y’s international image as it suspends and sanctions members or hands out its greatest plum: the World Cup, which it organizes every four years.
It’s no surprise then that federation executives normally have access to the highest levels of political pow er. Last month, in an announcement timed to coincide with its centennial celebrations, FIFA picked South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup, the first time world soccer’s signature event will be held in Africa.
According to South Africa’s Sunday Argus newspaper, few of the jubilant South Africans knew that their President Thabo Mbeki and greatest statesman Nelson Mandela helped clinch the deal in closed-door meetings with FIFA executive committee members.
Yet the federation’s leaders are equally adept at bestowing sanctions as favors, and are jealous of their power. On June 2 FIFA announced Kenya’s suspension from international soccer and the next World Cup because of the Kenyan government’s decision to “interfere” in the country’s national soccer asso ciation. Many Kenyans were outraged by the FIFA ban, saying the government had intervened only to stamp out corruption.
When he travels, FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter is received with the same protocol as a head of state, “something that only ha ppens with the president of the International Olympic Committee,” writes Elizabeth Mora Mass, columnist with New York City Spanish-language daily El Diario/La Prensa.
Yet unlike a head of state, she says, the federation’s president “gives little public accounting of his activities.”
FIFA’s lack of transparency is well known to soccer journalists worldwide. In addition to the absence of real oversight of its activities, FIFA is headquartered in Zurich, where the Swiss legal system that prizes financia l privacy acts as a further deterrent to scrutiny.
Not surprisingly, FIFA powerbrokers are too often the targets of accusations of mismanagement, cronyism and corruption as hundreds of millions of dollars worth of contracts are negotiated, including th e lucrative TV rights to World Cup games, which are watched by over 30 billion people.
Since the organization’s beginning in 1904 it has had only eight presidents, and the last two, Brazilian João Havelange and Blatter, a Swiss, have helped transform FI FA into a global sports juggernaut but also imbued it with an imperiousness that is now part of its organizational culture.
As an Associated Press reporter I covered the 2001 FIFA under-17 soccer world championship in Trinidad and Tobago. Jack A. Warner, a Trinidadian tycoon and FIFA vice-president, was accused of playing favorites by funneling lucrative contracts to family and cronies.
During a testy press conference, Warner and Blatter lashed out at reporters (Warner insinuated I wasn’t old enough t o be challenging his management of the championship) and refused to answer questions about why Warner’s family was raking in millions of dollars in tournament-related business.
If Blatter was reluctant to investigate there were ample reasons. He was fac ing an election and needed Warner’s support to fend off a challenge to his presidency, tainted by charges of financial mismanagement, cash-for-votes allegations, and the still murky collapse of FIFA’s marketing arm, which controlled television rights to t he 2006 World Cup in Germany.
With Warner’s help, though, Blatter was re-elected the next year; both he and Warner still hold on to their posts today and still are among the most powerful officials of the 24-member Executive Committee. The next election s are in 2007.
Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, who led his team to win the 1986 Mexico World Cup, famously called FIFA a “mafia, a sect.” The accusation may be exaggerated, but it is not off the mark in at least one sense: Like a criminal organization or a cult, FIFA answers to no earthly power.
Marcelo Ballve is a former reporter for the Associated Press in Brazil and the Caribbean and covered international soccer.