No matter how exciting the World Cup games have been, the tarnish of widespread bribery and corruption within FIFA’s ranks has diminished the Cup’s luster.
Serious doubts remain that much will change despite a change in leadership, the criminal prosecution of dozens of FIFA executives and marketing officials, and pledges by FIFA officials to clean up governance of the world’s most popular sport.
FIFA’s corruption problems are mind-boggling: Millions paid to secure votes from numerous FIFA executives who determine World Cup host countries, millions more paid to win contracts to televise soccer matches, and even threats against those who have revealed some of FIFA’s dirty secrets.
Clearly, FIFA’s culture and practices need to be reset, and any lingering problems must be rooted out.
One of the best ways to make this happen is to demand that FIFA institute a whistleblower program to encourage whistleblowers to expose the corruption that remains hidden, by guaranteeing them protection from retaliation within FIFA and possibly even a reward, if the information a whistleblower provides leads to an investigation that determines there were significant violations of FIFA’s ethics rules.
Only with the help of knowledgeable insiders will FIFA, the global governing body for soccer, truly be able to dig out the roots of corruption and restore trust in the organization.
Look at the impact just one FIFA insider had on exposing the rot within the organization. Due to information that Chuck Blazer, a former member of FIFA’s executive board, provided to US authorities about high-level corruption and bribery, longtime FIFA president Sepp Blatter was forced to resign and dozens of FIFA and marketing executives were indicted on corruption charges in 2015.
Blazer was a secret witness for law enforcement – not a whistleblower. He gave up FIFA secrets because he was nailed by US authorities for failing to file personal income taxes totaling millions of dollars. In 2013 he agreed to become a cooperative witness for US enforcement authorities and secretly record conversations with FIFA officials. Blazer’s cooperation shows the difference one well-placed person can make to expose corruption.
Although FIFA is based in Switzerland, the US has led the charge against FIFA corruption, using the indictments and arrests as leverage to get other FIFA insiders to expose even more corruption. The US claimed jurisdiction to prosecute corrupt FIFA officials and marketing executives in many countries because some of the plans to buy votes in World Cup bid decisions were made in the US and the US banking system was used for a significant portion of the corrupt payments.
The US efforts are not surprising. While the US may not be a powerhouse in soccer, when it comes to anti-corruption efforts, no other country can compete with its record.
So far, at least 19 individuals and two companies have pleaded guilty in US courts to charges of bribery related to the FIFA scandal. Two others individuals were found guilty of racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy charges. And just this week, Imagina US LLC, which is majority-owned by a Spanish media company, pleaded guilty to criminal charges and agreed to pay more than $24 million in penalties for paying $6.5 million in bribes to high-ranking Caribbean and Central American soccer officials to secure media and marketing rights to World Cup qualifier matches.
FIFA, unfortunately, has demonstrated that it views whistleblowers as the enemy. It has gone through the motions of soliciting information from whistleblowers and protecting their identities, such as placing a form on its website that allows individuals to report concerns anonymously. But its actions conflict with its words.
For instance, two whistleblowers who were promised confidentiality when they provided information to the FIFA investigator looking into the bidding process to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were outed by FIFA in its public summary of the report. One said she received threatening messages as a result; the other lost her job.
Given that history, other whistleblowers will be extremely reluctant to come forward. FIFA needs to demonstrate that it has changed its attitude toward whistleblowers. Only then will the organization change, too.