FIFA’s reputation has been plummeting since last year’s vote for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts and on Friday it was sent into a tailspin with news that president Sepp Blatter is facing an ethics inquiry.
Whatever happens today when Blatter and his election rival Mohamed bin Hammam are hauled in to answer questions, the fact that the only candidates for the top job in world soccer are under investigation just days before the poll is little short of a PR catastrophe for the battered governing body.
Blatter and Bin Hammam — once close allies and now seemingly intractable foes — will be joined in front of the FIFA ethics committee by Jack Warner, the controversial president of the CONCACAF confederation, which covers the north and central American countries and the Caribbean.
Warner and bin Hammam were named in a report by Warner’s secretary general Chuck Blazer -concerning ethical violations, possibly including bribery, at a meeting this month.
Bin Hammam said Blatter should give evidence to the ethics committee as well because, he said, the FIFA president may have known about cash payments being made to delegates at the meeting and failed to disclose the information.
Blatter has repeatedly stressed that FIFA is not corrupt and last weekend at a news conference in South Africa he slammed his fist on the table as he made his point.
It will take more than gestures now to repair the damage to FIFA’s image, which many have likened to the crisis the International Olympic Committee (IOC) responded to so effectively following the Salt Lake City scandal.
Image and perception counts a great deal for FIFA, whose ability to develop and run soccer around the world depends enormously on being able to attract massive global sponsorship and TV deals in return for broadcasting and marketing rights.
“It makes me think of the IOC situation,” said Darin David, a Dallas-based director in sports marketing and sponsorship at US company The Marketing Arm. “With the incredible sponsorship dollars that FIFA attracts you certainly, as a company, don’t want that going towards something where the integrity is in question or you are not sure if you can trust the people.”
“They receive tremendous income from sponsors. I am sure they will move quickly to try to clean up and do some damage control. If it’s isolated individuals they will deal with it. If it is something more systemic they will make changes and they will be in touch with sponsors. If they are not in touch with sponsors, the sponsors will certainly be in touch with them,” David said.
For some observers, perhaps, Blatter’s appearance in front of the committee will show FIFA is indeed making some progress, -demonstrating that not even its most senior official is above the rules.
Few people who have followed FIFA politics will have much sympathy for that view, especially as allegations about corruption have now been publicly made against 10 of the powerful 24-man FIFA executive committee.
Last year, two executive committee members were suspended in another bribes-for-votes scandal in the lead-up to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup decision, held on the same day in Zurich in December last year.
Blatter’s decision to hold the two votes together was made “to maximize commercial possibilities,” as he has told reporters.
The result was a campaign that produced a crisis at FIFA that has endured for the last six months.