ZURICH (Reuters) - The spotlight at next week’s FIFA Congress will fall on the presidential election - but the real key to the future of soccer’s beleaguered governing body is embedded in a document with the unglamorous title “Draft statutes - Congress 2016”.
Drawn up over the last eight months, it suggests changes to stop the scandals that have left the organization supposed to lead the world’s most popular sport facing its greatest threat for decades.
The most obvious challenge is criminal investigations in the United States and Switzerland that have already resulted in the indictment of several dozen soccer officials for corruption, many of them serving or former presidents of national or continental associations.
U.S. prosecutors have continued to call FIFA a victim of corrupt individuals. But if FIFA as an organization were criminally charged, sponsors and other partners might be reluctant to do business with it.
But that is not the only concern. In the last month, talk has resurfaced among Europe’s most powerful clubs of a breakaway European Super League, as well as complaints about the amount of time players spend with national teams.
National team competitions depend on a calendar agreed between FIFA and the clubs, which commit to release players to their national teams on certain dates.
If the clubs, which are always eager for more opportunities to play lucrative friendlies abroad, were to pull out, it would throw international football into chaos.
There was similar discontent in the 1990s, when European soccer’s governing body UEFA became deeply critical of Joao Havelange, the Brazilian president of FIFA at the time.
UEFA produced proposals that included handing more power to the continental confederations, rotating FIFA’s presidency and limiting it mainly to organizing the four-yearly World Cup.
Leading clubs including AC Milan and Manchester United then sought to build support for a breakaway league, and top players found themselves in a tug-of-war as clubs refused to release them for internationals.
FIFA’s response was to threaten national associations (FAs), clubs and players with suspension if they linked up with the proposed league, and UEFA quelled the threat by reorganizing its competitions.
But FIFA now faces similar challenges, added to the menace of match-fixing organized by illegal betting syndicates, all while trying to shake off a series of scandals that have seen FIFA president Sepp Blatter banned for ethics violations and cast a shadow over the awarding of at least three World Cup finals. Clearly, it cannot afford to get its reforms wrong.
“If there is not a strong FIFA, football will be grabbed by a lot of people who have no interest in the game and want to use the game for other reasons - political, business or even criminal,” said Jerome Champagne, one of five candidates for president.
The reform proposal on the table includes term limits for top officials, to avoid another 18-year presidency such as Blatter‘s, as well as disclosure of their salaries.
More radically, it would take responsibility for everyday business decisions away from the “political” representatives of national associations. These would sit on a new-look 36-member FIFA Council, which would have at least six female members, and set a broad strategy for world soccer.
Day-to-day management would instead pass to a new, professional general secretariat, more akin to a corporate executive board, which, like the Council, would be overseen by a fully independent Audit and Compliance Committee.
The proposals also place a greater onus on continental confederations and national associations to police themselves.
The 209 national associations, who ultimately hold the power in FIFA through the Congress, and vote for the president, are often seen as a significant part of the problem.
Most of those indicted in the United States committed their alleged crimes while carrying out duties for their national FAs or continental confederations.
In November, the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International said the vast majority of FAs were failing to make basic information public, creating a potential breeding ground for corruption.
“The (proposed) statutes do generally address the obligations of confederations to observe the FIFA statutes,” Transparency researcher Gareth Sweeney told Reuters, “but they do not adequately explain how FIFA can oversee the confederations’ and the FAs’ compliance.”
“FIFA is effectively answerable to its Congress, but how transparent are its member FAs? It’s clear that has been inadequate until today.”
Sweeney also bemoaned the lack of independent participants on the FIFA Council, whose members will all be elected by the FAs.
“While that opportunity has been lost, the draft statute reforms do cover a lot of required checks and balances that could limit the type of corruption we have seen in the past.”
Other critics believe the only way to deal with FIFA is to start all over again.
“We believe they need to dissolve it, and by ‘they’ I mean the Swiss government, they have the power to do so,” said Jaimie Fuller, a member of the New FIFA Now campaign group.
He said that FIFA’s failure to organize a presidential debate with the five candidates standing on Feb. 26, three of them with current or former ties to FIFA, showed a lack of will to reform.
”If FIFA was genuine in saying they want to be a reformed organization, they should have been conducting the presidential debate themselves; instead it’s the same the old system today, and this reinforces the fact they have no desire to reform,” he said. “It’s the same men doing deals behind closed doors.”
Editing by Kevin Liffey