FIFA: This time, fan outrage can work

FIFA: This time, fan outrage can work

Published May. 31, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

Finding a consensus on the best way ordinary fans of the game of football can help bring about change at FIFA is almost as confusing as figuring out the cross-lattices of allegation and counter-allegation within the FIFA Executive Committee that have come to light over the past few weeks.

Every time news of more FIFA impropriety and unaccountability makes the headlines, fans ask themselves: Should we pressure our governments to do anything? Or should we stick with lobbying our national soccer associations? Should we focus instead on pressuring FIFA's sponsorship partners? Or are a few angry soccer fans a mere drop in their revenue bucket? Should we look to pull out of FIFA altogether and replace it with a different, governing body? Or should we look at ways to improve accountability within the existing organization? If so, what sort of reforms should FIFA introduce to become more transparent and accountable to fans? Or are the recent allegations a matter of a few bad apples that need to be removed from the FIFA ExCo? Does anyone even care about FIFA reform outside of England and the US? Or is this just sour grapes over a pair of failed World Cup bids? And aren’t there more important issues in the world to spend time and effort focusing on anyway?

There was a time when supporters had to parse out these questions on their own. By the time they had debated themselves into a corner, press attention on the scandal of the moment - whether Sepp Blatter's controversial election in 1998, or the collapse of ISL in 2002, or Jack Warner's cash-for-World Cup-tickets allegations in 2006 - had already faded and disappeared. And so nothing happened.

So what's different this time around? I think there are two important factors that mark a significant break from the past.


First, while allegations of impropriety, shady quid pro quos and cash gifts are nothing particularly new in FIFA's history, social media - especially the rapid-fire, real-time Twitter feed - have shifted the FIFA reform debate into real-time. Articles and perspectives that previously wouldn't have seen the light of day (like Mel Brennan’s incredible piece on Chuck Blazer) are instantly shared around the world; debate over the best course of action among fans of the game progresses across continents; and a kind of consensus on the best course of action slowly emerges.

While it's important not to overstate Twitter's influence — it represents an infinitesimally small cross-section of world football fans — it remains a tool with incredible potential, linking journalists in FIFA press scrums with an interested global audience comprised of everyday fans. It's only as powerful as the fans and FIFA reformers who use it.

Second, the spread out nature of this most recent scandal, which as the Telegraph points out dates back to October of last year, has kept FIFA impropriety in the headlines over a longer period of time. Every other week seems to bring some fresh hell of a knighthood demanded in exchange for a bid vote, TV rights moneys requested with no due process, and more ExCo members suspended. News of fresh allegations crash like waves, each more powerful than the last. That means debates about FIFA reform, forgotten when the actual football comes back on, re-start almost from where they left off.

So then, what is the current consensus on what needs to be done to change FIFA for good?

First, I think most fans are moving away from the knee-jerk, start-all-over-again approach of pressuring their own national associations to pull out of FIFA altogether and form an entirely new global governing organization. The idea of any single FA having the courage to make the first, drastic move is as unrealistic as it is impractical. Nor does it address the fundamental issue of what a new global football organization would do differently to prevent the sorts of things we’re seeing in Zurich.

Second, there is a growing realization that the universal language of FIFA is money. While the kinds of fans who hate large, unaccountable, transnational organizations aren't exactly hopeful that asking its corporate sponsors to pressure FIFA into reform will work, it remains the most powerful, direct link between fans and football's decision-makers. Pressuring notoriously PR-sensitive corporations, which dwarf FIFA in global significance, also provides a fairly simple means for advocates of FIFA reform to get on board. Sending and publishing letters, or advocating public boycotts doesn't present an insurmountable time commitment.

Third, the reforms within the International Olympic Committee following the Salt Lake City Olympic bid scandal- gift ceilings, term and age limits within the ExCo, installing athletes at the executive decision-making level - seem to be forming a rallying point for anti-FIFA advocates. While no one expects these modest but important changes to drop a halo over FIFA headquarters, they do represent a good foundation for further transparency and reform.

Yet, just as fresh news continues to emerge ahead of FIFA's upcoming FIFA presidential "election" of the unopposed Sepp Blatter following the suspension of rival Mohamed bin Hammam over bribery allegations, the debate on the best course of action among regular fans also continues to evolve. The one encouraging constant though - as supporters, journalists, and hopefully players at some point discuss how they can best bring about important change at the highest levels - is momentum. The power of globally-connected social media platforms is certainly helping to grease the wheels. The media is doing their part with steady, up-to-the-minute news reporting. What remains to be seen is how you, the soccer fan reading this article, will take the next step in doing something for the good of the global game.

Richard Whittall writes on football from his home in Toronto, Canada. In addition to this site, he's a regular contributor the Score's Footy Blog, Canadian Soccer News, and Brian Phillip's unsurpassed Run of Play. His writing has appeared in Toronto Life and the Globe and Mail, and he was a contributor for Brooks Peck's Yahoo! blog Dirty Tackle for the 2010 World Cup.