Posted by Ben Tirebuck
The recent high profile allegations of bribery and corruption at FIFA have sent shockwaves around the world. Many have been left appalled that the beautiful game could be infiltrated and affected by such unethical behaviour and conduct. After all football is the people’s game, a universal language, one of the most widespread, popular, fast growing and easily accessible past times on the planet. It unifies cultures and people unlike any other medium and provokes varying emotions on an incomparable scale. Cheating isn’t part of the game plan.
Football has also become big, big business in recent years and from a commercial perspective this raises very real threats of reputational risk to some of the largest companies in the world. It also arguably presents a juncture whereby the huge international sponsorship deals that continue to feed football’s governing body become compromised. Do the likes of Adidas, Visa, Coca Cola, etc want to be associated with such a scandal and the ensuing implications, irrespective of profitability and market share?
The news has hit hard and left many initially aghast. However take a step back and there are many positives to be taken, there is much optimism for the future. It is, primarily, an example of the US continuing to position itself centre stage in efforts to prosecute corruption and graft. The fact it involves football (known as Soccer in the US) is largely irrelevant as US authorities and enforcement agencies are industry neutral. Their goal is issuing a red card to bribery and corruption. It is encouraging to know that many other industries are also part of this drive and this whole episode can serve as a springboard to raise global awareness and standards.
What can be learned from the FIFA scandal though? First and foremost it casts a very definite focus onto the whole question of ethical culture and the notion of tone from the top. Despite now resigning from his post Sepp Blatter, former President of FIFA, stated he was completely unaware of any wrong doing under his watch and that it was impossible for him to monitor everyone within the organisation. Blatter had been in the hot seat since 1998 and employed at FIFA for over 40 years so to make such a claim raises serious questions as to his capabilities and commitment whilst seriously undermining the ethos of “follow the leader.” It is also important to remember that FIFA is officially registered as a charity organisation. Culture is defined from within and nobody embodies this more visibly or critically than the captain of the team, regardless of the size of the organisation. The state of culture within an organisation also has far reaching implications, of course, with conduct and reputational risk being the most obvious.
Whoever succeeds Blatter has a tough task on their hands. Under his tenure a culture was fostered that is unequivocally corrupt and unethical and changing the mind-set of those who have benefited under this regime will be a challenge and take considerable time.
Aside from votes for sale, bribery and ground level corruption there are far wider, more serious issues relating to the human rights of migrant construction workers employed specifically for the Qatari World Cup. A report by the International Trade Union Confederation has estimated 1,200 fatalities so far with up to 4,000 additional worker deaths predicted by 2022. Terms such as human trafficking and slavery are omnipresent and casting dark, ominous shadows over proceedings that transcend further than just corporate profit and significantly impact reputational risk. Will sponsors have the ethical courage and strength to disassociate themselves or will the lure of continuing to be linked to the beautiful game prevail?
It was only a matter of time before the FIFA house of cards came crashing down and this should send a very clear warning of the increased cooperation of cross border intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The resoundingly powerful message is that if you roll a dice tainted with bribery and corruption then you will be found, no matter how small or big you may be perceived – and FIFA are the perfect example of this. Consider more committed and robust approaches by authorities in areas traditionally classified as inherently corrupt and unstable such as China, Brazil and Indonesia and it is clear the tide is turning, enough is enough. Authorities are acting and mean business.
Despite the US authorities being industry neutral, using sport and FIFA as an example and standard bearer for other industries and jurisdictions it is an incredibly powerful, and smart, tactic – and, despite the irony, it matters little that the flood gates have been opened using a sport the US is not widely associated with nor, particularly fond of.
It is only half time and there is still much to be done. But it is a positive start. Hopefully this example will resonate and be heeded across other industries and it results in a more committed and robust approach to not only bribery and corruption compliance but more widely in terms of culture, governance and ethical conduct. If so then the beautiful game being tarnished will be a positive and acceptable sacrifice in achieving a greater good.
Ben Tirebuck is Director of Market Development at ethiXbase, based in Singapore. He has been involved in driving and enhancing standards of corporate ethics, governance, compliance and integrity for many years via events and thought leadership initiatives and has been a passionate fan of football all his life.