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Fifa must red-card its old-fashioned governance structure

Fifa's current governance arrangements have proved unable to deliver effective leadership, accountability, transparency, clean business practices and public confidence

“FOOTBALL has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”

We can perhaps forgive George Orwell for his caustic view of the beautiful game: it was 1941 and Europe was in the grip of a deep and (as it turned out) lasting conflict. But his words came to mind when I began to consider the situation the sport’s international governing body finds itself in more than 70 years later.

The youth of the world has once again locked horns – but this time in a glorious festival of sport. The Fifa World Cup has proved a wonderful global spectacle featuring drama, excitement and goals aplenty. The skill and commitment of players on the field has been gripping and the emergence of fresh new talent has been uplifting.

What is going on off the field, however, is rather less edifying (although sadly no less public), and underlines an urgent need to profoundly revamp Fifa.

Off the pitch issues

As most people will no doubt be aware, The Sunday Times has made serious allegations relating to the award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar which have struck to the heart of the organisation. The Economist joined in the chorus of disapproval stating “the case for stripping Qatar of the 2022 World Cup seems unassailable”.

Whether or not you agree, it is imperative that Fifa understands the unease and unrest the affair has created and responds positively to its critics. To my mind, there is no better time for the Fifa board to reflect on the accusations and then use them as a catalyst for change. Top of my list, if I was advising them, would be to transform their governance from frankly “worst in class” to “state of the art”.

Since its creation in 1904, Fifa has grown from a small group of volunteers into a global organisation. However, unlike most multinational enterprises, its governance has not evolved in a way that reflects the massive complexity and global prominence of its activities.

In the past, Fifa has resisted reform on the basis that it needs a governance structure that is more inclusive and democratic than a typical corporation. However, as we have seen, the reality is that Fifa’s current governance arrangements have proved unable to deliver effective leadership, accountability, transparency, clean business practices and public confidence.

Fifa is an organisation whose decision-making processes are routinely alleged to be corrupt or improperly influenced. During the last four years, four members of its Executive Committee have been forced out on the basis of suspicions of bribery. For such a large and important global organisation, such negative perceptions are unsustainable.

The final report by Fifa’s Independent Governance Committee (Chaired by professor Mark Pieth) was published in April 2014. It makes a number of recommendations for governance reform which have yet to be adopted. As a minimum, these should be implemented as a matter of urgency.

What to change?

The most important of these recommendations is that independent members should be added to the Fifa Executive Committee (in addition to those appointed by the regional confederations and Fifa Congress).

In my view, this recommendation does not go far enough. Fifa’s Executive Committee should be transformed into a modern board of directors containing a significant number of independent board members directly elected by the Fifa Congress. Instead of a president (the role currently occupied by Sepp Blatter), there should be a separate chairman and CEO. Such a board would be more capable of promoting the success of the organisation in a professional and objective manner, and would be selected on the basis of merit and expertise. It would also be properly accountable in its pursuit of FIFA’s mission and objectives.

In addition, Professor Pieth is right to argue for a fundamental review of Fifa’s key processes and policies, including those relating to World Cup hosting decisions, the governance of development projects, campaigns for the Fifa presidency and marketing/procurement activities. Independent directors should play a key role in the oversight of all of these key processes.

Fifa is currently cushioned by the large amounts of money flowing into world football. It can also seek refuge behind its unaccountable and dysfunctional governance structure. However, by embracing rather than rejecting fundamental reform, Fifa has the opportunity to become a beacon of best practice in global sports governance rather than an increasingly derided pariah.

If Fifa is not prepared to take the necessary steps itself, pressure should be exerted by the main corporate sponsors (Adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates, Hyundai, Sony and Visa) and their shareholders. The Swiss regulatory authorities (in whose jurisdiction Fifa is incorporated as a not-for-profit organisation) should also consider the regulatory tools at their disposal.

Last but not least, the regional football confederations and the Fifa Congress should reflect on the damage to their own reputations if they continue to support a discredited framework for the governance of global football.

It would be a worthy finale to a fabulous summer of sport.

Roger Barker is director of corporate governance and professional standards at the Institute of Directors

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