It’s time to Turn the Heat on FIFA’s Bribers

There is a funny little scene in a recent Sherlock Holmes movie where the detective drives a prototypic car creating an infernal noise. His colleague Watson is most concerned that this kind of transport would draw the attention of Holmes’ enemies to which the detective succinctly replies: ‘it’s so overt, it’s covert’.

The recent scandal about the World Cup 2006 bid very much reminds me of this scene. Not only did it sound scarcely credible when German football authorities assured that its bid was clean. To me it also seems obvious that we can trace back the ‘irregular’ activities to those who would benefit the most from such behaviour: corporate sponsors. In my previous blogpost I argued that Adidas holds a key position in the political economy of German football deeply influencing both the fate of the national and the international game. It came as little surprise then that Adidas’ former chief executive manager Louis Dreyfus was a prominent figure in the German World Cup bid, supposedly providing the necessary cash to ‘convince’ some of the FIFA representatives to vote accordingly. Far beyond this incident Andrew Jennings has described how companies have influenced and engineered FIFA decisions.

Given the involvement of powerful sponsors I also think that the corruption scandal is not about the ‘clean’ North implementing a highly naïve and unrealistic ‘good governance’ agenda on the Global South (for an example see here) as insinuated by Branko Milanovic and others. Corruption is essentially a north south problem which binds together, in a rather asymmetric way, corrupt practices involving both sides. Strangely enough, though, the heat is predominantly turned on the FIFA representatives. In a certain sense that is fair, since these are the decision makers and gate-keepers of the beautiful game. But it is also part of a remarkably partial and in some ways anti-regulation discourse that blames the bribe takers, but forgets about the bribe givers. For a long time, corruption was so accepted in Europe that many countries gave tax subsidies to bribe giving, especially for those bribes given abroad (for the German case see here).

It is time to turn the heat also against the bribe givers. To be sure not all types of practices of gift giving and of business coordination are acts of corruption. In addition, there are many practices that legally don’t count as corruption but are nonetheless serious instances in which money biases unfairly political decision making. Hence, the FIFA case is a fascinating case study for how to deal with these practices in a multi-cultural context. But in excessive forms corrupt practices such as leaked in the FIFA scandal, they are a serious problem for the legitimacy and credibility for the governing bodies. They are also a tremendous force for increasing inequality and poor performance in general (see IMF paper here). After all, most personalized money illegally given to FIFA representatives does not trickle down and improve the football infrastructure of their countries. In this sense there is also a difference between populist practices of dishing out sums to associations to secure their votes, and corrupt practices for buying of individual decision makers.

For all these reasons we need to include the bribe givers in the scandalization and treat the scandal issue as what it is: a global one, in which neither the rich or the poor countries hold the moral upper ground.

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