Friday, May 29, 2015

Productive Debate on FIFA's Future

Now that Sepp Blatter has won a fifth term and the US and Swiss prosecutors are hard at work with who-knows-what-might-happen-next, it might be a good time to debate what kind of FIFA we'd collectively lie to see in the future. Having this debate may prove a challenge.

Consider this very recent tiff.

Over at FiveThirtyEight Nate Silver proposed one model for a new, breakaway soccer association:
But what if you used the 34 OECD members as the foundation of a new football federation? The OECD doesn’t include Russia but does have most of the large European economies, including Germany, the U.K., France, Italy and Spain. It also has the United States and a foothold in the Asia-Pacific region (Japan, South Korea, Australia) and Latin America (Mexico, Chile). These OECD members account for more than 60 percent of the GDP-weighted World Cup audience and about 80 percent of the club-team representation in the 2014 World Cup.

Convince Brazil and Argentina to join the breakaway foundation, and you’re doing even better. You’d be up to almost 70 percent of the GDP-weighted World Cup audience, and you’d have 11 of the 16 countries that advanced to the knockout stage of last year’s World Cup.
Silver's proposal drew the ire of Branko Milanovic, CUNY professor and former World Bank economist:
The piece illustrates that a combination of good statistics with lack of knowledge of history, produces useless results. It is as if one were to study today’s racial wage gap in the US without knowing that there ever was slavery.

But let us consider the key part of Nate’s idea. He thinks that a new FIFA should be formed of the countries that bring most money to the current FIFA and the rest should be left out in the cold. Let the poor countries with awful soccer turfs, with these miserable human creatures that cannot pay $100 per game, stay out on their own, and keep on playing their game on dirt fields, not seen on TV screens or by anyone else except their neighbors. In the  meantime, we the new rich and shiny FIFA will come to the game in our Audis and Mercedeses, and play on the impeccable fields full of fun commercials, and shall flood every TV screen of every nation in the world.

The  importance  of countries reflects, Nate says, how much money they bring to FIFA. If a country is rich, populous and lots of people watch the World Cup, and thus add to FIFA’s revenues, then that country should matter more. OECD is big and rich enough to go it alone. 
Do go read both pieces in full. Both make some interesting points, but neither really helps to clarify options, much less expand them into new possibilities. A debate over FIFA's future, of course, is one worth having -- and judging by Milanovic and Silver's Twitter exchanges, probably not on Twitter.

The essential issue here was well characterized by Stefan Szymanski in an earlier post at Reuters:
Perhaps most worryingly for FIFA and the future of the World Cup, it’s not even clear that people around the world agree on the meaning of corruption. This is a culturally sensitive issue. Kickbacks and bribery are a normal part of doing business in many countries, as documented by watchdog Transparency International. But even within the United States, in many cases it is the norm to pay individuals a gratuity for making things happen. When you tip a waiter or doorman you don’t expect the sum to be public or the transaction to be considered a bribe, even if you follow your tip with “Now please find me the best table.”

In northwest Europe and the United States, we have now drawn a sharp distinction between this legal activity and the illegal activity of giving gratuities to public officials or individuals involved in arms-length transactions. Not everyone in the world thinks like this. No doubt there are executives inside FIFA who, until now, have thought of themselves as “clean,” but must be wondering if any of their actions might be actually be legal. After all, the Justice Department says, “this indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation.”

Building a coalition on a global scale — and that’s what the World Cup and FIFA really is — requires immense compromises, and often a willingness not to look too deeply into what is going on. Most people might applaud the Justice Department’s assault on the worst excesses of FIFA. But if this investigation goes much deeper, resistance from the members of the FIFA congress might stiffen. The warring parties might break up into regional blocs, and the World Cup itself might be the victim. If that is the price of justice, some might say, then it is a price worth paying.
Options for FIFA's future are not at all comparable, as Silver analogizes, to spinning off the Premier League from lower divisions in English soccer in the early 1990s. Nor is it comparable, as Milanovic has it, to deciding on the proper form of global governance. Such perspectives do more to muddle than clarify.

FIFA is a sports association, with a long history and complex politics. That people around the world care so deeply about soccer is wonderful. However, considerations of options for improving FIFA won't benefit from oversimplifying the politics and culture, nor from overstating the significance of FIFA's governance structure. And our discussion of options won't benefit from snark on Twitter. Any discussion of FIFA's options going forward must be well attuned to politics, history, culture, data, and realize that people will fundamentally disagree about many of these things.

In fact, achieving disagreement would be a sign of process. At the moment, before (the) other investigative shoe(s) drop(s), we have an opportunity to engage in a thoughtful debate about options for FIFA's future. Clarity on options may prove useful at some point in the future. Big wigs like Silver and Milanovic can help that debate to happen, or not.


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