A firmer footing for ‘football’

Under FIFA international soccer has grown corrupt. Will 2016 provide a turnaround?

Ruben Sprich/Reuters/File
A FIFA sign is seen outside FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland.

As the clock ticks its way into 2016 it’s also ticking down to the Feb. 7 Super Bowl, a game that this year for the 50th time will crown the champion of the National Football League.

In 2015 US professional football had its share of scandals and embarrassment, from questionable off-field conduct by individual players to a seemingly interminable investigation into the possibility that deflated footballs were used in a playoff game.

Serious questions are also being raised about the effects of numerous diagnosed concussions on the long-term health of players. A new Hollywood film titled “Concussion” is bringing that issue to a wider audience.

But the biggest scandal in “football” now is vexing the international sport also known by that name nearly everywhere except the United States, where it’s called soccer. An investigation into corruption at the highest levels of FIFA, the international soccer governing body, has resulted in criminal charges against 41 FIFA officials from many countries. Sepp Blatter, FIFA president for 17 years, has been forced to step down and has been banned from the sport for eight years.

Just weeks after US fans will have enjoyed their annual Super Bowl Sunday ritual (which has taken on the feel of a national holiday), FIFA will hold a crucial Feb. 26 meeting to elect new leadership and pledge itself to new reforms.

NFL television ratings didn’t suffer during its year of off-field turmoil, which included some criticism aimed at the performance of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. And likewise the popularity of international football (soccer) hasn’t suffered despite a scandal of jaw-dropping proportions. Fans of sports in the US and abroad still enjoy the product they’re seeing from the stands or on their screens. Reforms aren’t likely to come from an incensed fandom.

Instead public watchdogs are doing the work. It’s not too soon to laud the efforts of the US Justice Department and a number of whistle-blowers and investigative journalists who have brought the FIFA scandal into the light.

The FIFA story is far from over, and further accusations of bribery or other corruption involving FIFA officials are likely to be forthcoming.

Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a Bahraini who is president of the Asian Football Confederation, appears to be the leading candidate to take over the top post at FIFA. And he is saying all the right things.

“My primary objective is to reform, restructure, and reorganize FIFA top-down to once again become what its founders set it out to be: a service organization of the highest moral and ethical standards...,” Sheikh Salman has said. He also has promised to provide greater support to women’s football, to welcome “constructive criticism,” and to implement “strict ethical and business guidelines.”

Unfortunately past promises from officials pledging to reform FIFA have proved to be mostly empty words. But perhaps the heat generated by these ongoing investigations will light the way to true reform.

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