For global control and influence, FIFA trumps the IMF

If you’re not terribly interested in football, the chances are that how the game is governed is even less interesting. But while the speculation swirls around who will become the next IMF managing director after Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s fall from grace, it is the competition for the FIFA presidency, mired in a dizzying vortex of allegation and grandstanding, where global power and clout is being far more bitterly contested.

The IMF has a busy job bailing out eurozone basketcase economies, and together with the World Bank, is the preeminent institutional symbol of global economic governance. Much of the heat and light over who takes on its MD role boils down to representativeness and claims of a democratic deficit, with major developing countries attempting to assert greater influence over an institution traditionally run by a European. Only faintly are the differences among the various possible candidates discussed – what difference would frontrunner Christine Lagarde make compared to any other candidate? The symbolism does matter, not least for the percieved legitimacy of the organisation itself – but my suspicion is very much that the MD role is a rather constrained one. For any bailout, the IMF will always have its terms, but these will be closely watched, and closely contested.

But over at FIFA, there are no such constraints on presidential power. In the battle between Sepp Blatter and Mohamed bin Hammam, layer after layer of alleged vote-buying, travel junkets and empire-building efforts build a picture of a global entity where power is highly personalized and operates in a largely untrammelled way. Now, with its top echelons embroiled in direct accusations at each other, this behaviour has very much emerged out of the shadows.

Previous accusations, such as from the BBC’s Panorama programme and reporter Andrew Jennings in the run-up to the World Cup selection vote at the end of last year, confronted a wall of silence from FIFA leaders, apparently quite happy to divide the spoils between them. But when the FIFA presidency turned into a zero-sum, winner-takes-all contest, the ‘who, me?’ facade cracked.

With large pots of money to distribute around the world in the name of the ‘development’ of football, and with the power to decide where one of the most lucrative events in the world – the World Cup – is hosted, its top echelons have a huge amount of personal power to build grateful constituencies through the distribution of funds, and the ability to name their price. One of the most striking revelations from the Panorama programme was FIFA’s apparent ability to gain guarantees from local law and regulation – from visa travel rules to labour laws, and especially on tax – with exemptions for FIFA itself, and for its corporate sponsors.

The terms of IMF bailouts are often regarded by local publics, from Indonesia to Ireland, as abrogations of a state’s ‘sovereign’ right to decide its internal affairs. To the extent that national authorities agree to the terms, however, the sovereignty accusation doesn’t bother me – non-territorial entities can, and indeed do exercise significant influence over states. It is in this regard that the IMF and FIFA are not so very different in the conditionalities imposed on states – whether for loan packages or selecting the World Cup’s hosts. It is FIFA, however, where this passes by largely unnoticed, unscrutinized – and where individual personalities can indeed accrue significant personal power, if not profit.

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