By Doug Reed
“The culture has not changed. Look at the institution from the outside and what do you see? Voting is almost always unanimous. Incumbents are always re-elected and almost never challenged. Presidents that extend existing term limits.” These are the words of FIFA’s Former Governance Head, Migeul Maduro, on his former employer.
Maduro lasted less than a year at FIFA after he was dismissed, alongside the heads of FIFA’s ethics investigatory and adjudication bodies. His departure was widely attributed to his refusal to allow the then Russian Deputy Primer Minister from joining Fifa's ruling council. This would have contravened FIFA’s own regulations on political neutrality.
Last month, FIFA President Gianni Infantino was re-elected for the 2nd time without any challenge from a rival candidate. Yesterday, UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin was also re-elected again unopposed.
Both won contested election campaigns to take their positions after their incumbents, Sepp Blatter and Michael Platini, had to step down due to corruption scandals. Interestingly, once in power, their organisations have permitted their first terms not to count towards the term limits.
What does the lack of challengers against incumbents tell us about the state of the leadership of football?
Football’s governing bodies actions touch every part of the football eco-system from the professional game to the grassroots. To administer and develop football in their regions they have a lot of power and resources at their disposal.
FIFA generated $7.6 billion of revenues in their last 3-year cycle and, in the same period, UEFA took in €12.8 billion. A significant proportion of this is funnelled down to their members, the national associations.
The leaders of these organisations have signficant input on how the power and resources are utilised. Such finances can have a huge impact on developing the sport but they can also be employed as a method of influence.
Is it just a coincidence that these and many other incumbent football leaders are often unchallenged and multiple candidates exist only when the position has already been vacated?
Why does no-one challenge?
Is it because they feel so unable to compete against the current leaders, with their power to use their organisations resources to gain favour among the electorate, that they don’t even bother?
Maduro expanded on the frequency of unanimous voting, lack of challengers and extended term limits by highlighting “All of this, if it were a country, would be clear evidence that there is a severe democratic defect in the electoral system and the organization of the institution.”
In democratic politics you have a permanent opposition that scrutinises the policies and actions of those in power. You have a media whose audience is the voting public that, at least to some extent, holds those in power to account.
In football, neither of those exist. Leaders have free reign with little accountability, and are rarely challenged and only during the brief period of an election campaign. The media prioritises team related news so fans and players, who do not have voting powers, are often unaware of the decisions and actions of those that oversee the running and development of the game.
Criticism of these powerful leaders from those that have voting power within football’s structures is almost unheard of. It is clear that there is a culture of fear from the retribution for doing so.
Former Australian international, Moya Dodd, who was co-opted on to the FIFA Council said "I was acutely aware that if I wanted to stay [in the FIFA Council] for as long as possible, the best thing to do was nothing. That was certainly a better survival strategy than agitating on issues."
Dodd, who refused the gift of a luxury watch from the Brazilian FA unlike the majority of the council, left the council after losing the election to remain, beaten by someone who struggled to name who the Women's World Cup Champions were.
Football is more than just a sport. It is an important aspect of our society, culture and lives. There must be change to create more democratic institutions and elections. This will ensure we get the best leaders and leadership available.
The current situation is one reason why we see so few former players leading these organisations despite many having studied leadership and management to add to their knowledge of the game and inspirational profiles.
Lise Klaveness is a former international player and President of the Norweigen FA as well as a qualified lawyer. She has an outstanding football administration CV. Yet she fell far short yesterday of being elected to UEFA’s Executive Committee. It’s 20 members include just 1 women who is elected by acclamation.
To our earlier point, could her lack of support be because she has been honest and open about the issues with football governance such as the lack of consultation and consideration of human rights?
This questioning has not been received well in football leadership circles. After a speech Klaveness made at FIFA’s Congress on football’s responsibilities to inclusion, worker’s rights at World Cup stadiums and the protection of the basic principles of human rights, the following speaker, the President of a national association, said “this is not the right stage, not the right forum.”
It is imperative that issues are addressed publicly and in a transparent way. What Klaveness demonstrated was that having more players with the right values involved in the decision-making process would certainly promote a culture of increased openness, democratic process and that the interests of football are put ahead of personal interests.
This is crucial for the future of the game.