People have called football the beautiful game for a million different reasons. One of these is its universality. Football is played with enthusiasm and joy everywhere – from the beaches of Brazil to the streets of Manchester. There’s simply no other sport embraced and loved so passionately by old and young, rich and poor, men and women alike.
And if football were a religion (which it is to quite a few people), the World Cup would be its most important holiday, a celebration of the sport’s unmatched capacity to build bridges between people and nations and unite the world in play.
But now, the beautiful game and its key event are being dragged through the mud by the very institution claiming to be its guardian. FIFA, world football’s top body, finds itself embroiled in a corruption crisis so severe and shocking that I don’t see how it can survive without completely reinventing itself.
Many have long expressed doubts and concern about the way in which World Cup hosts are chosen, a system apparently so rife with corruption that the legitimacy of nearly every recent and future World Cup bid is called into question. If FIFA can’t manage to reform its governance, limit the power (and impunity) of its senior officials, and introduce the kind of transparency we expect of any non-profit organisation, national associations should consider leaving. First signals are positive. I applaud David Gill of England’s FA for pledging to resign if Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, is re-elected tomorrow. I hope others will follow.
As the old adage goes, the fish rots from the head down. Even if Blatter had no knowledge of any of the crimes alleged yesterday by US authorities, he must step down now and get out of the way. Enough is enough. I don’t know of a business CEO still standing after presiding over a mess like this one.
I also hope that FIFA’s sponsors will reconsider their commitments beyond the typical statements of concern we are seeing today. Sponsorship money has played a major role in enabling and sustaining this corrupt system for decades, it seems. I couldn’t think of a greater risk to any brand than being described as complicit in what really looks like organised crime.
We won’t be able to change FIFA’s past and undo its casualties, which includes the hundreds of Asian migrant workers that are estimated to have died already building the venues for the World Cup to be hosted by Qatar in 2022. But we must build a better future, where transparency, accountability, sustainability prevail over cronyism, corruption and reckless disregard for human rights. That’s what I’d call true love for the beautiful game.