Wednesday, August 23, 2023

What's wrong with football officials?

The current scandal about the sexually abusive behavior of the president of the Spanish football (soccer) federation (and member of UEFA’s executive committee), Luis Rubiales, is just the last of a series of scandals of this official in particular, and of other football executives elected by the structure of professional soccer.

In 2018, Rubiales replaced Angel M. Villar, who had gone to prison under corruption charges. That was just a few years after Gianni Infantino had replaced Sepp Blatter in front of FIFA, soon after the FBI had brought charges of corruption and organized crime against several members of the FIFA executive committee.

Infantino committed to reform FIFA, and appointed a team led by legal scholar Miguel Poiares Maduro to work on proposals to change the governance of football. After some time doing his work, Poiares resigned. He has explained his experience here and here. He concluded that football is impossible to reform from inside.

Rubiales’ behavior is unfortunately not uncommon in Spain (or other strong soccer communities). It is just that now it is incompatible with supporting the values represented by the very successful women’s national team, and the contradiction is unbearable. 

The journalist Simon Kuper’s book “Barça. The rise and fall of the club that built modern football” explains (p. 370) about Joan Laporta, the president of FC Barcelona (the team that had 11 players in the final of the World Cup, 9 in Spain, and 2 in England): “There was trouble on election day after he (Laporta) told a young woman with whom he’d pose for a photo: ‘Call me when you’re eighteen’. The only female member of his campaign slate was sent out to explain that he’d meant he’d be signing the girl to a Sports contract”. In the next few pages, the author expands on the Laporta style, including his inclination to appoint relatives and friends and get rid of professionals in executive positions.

Poiares has also explained that women are discriminated in their access to positions of responsibility in the structure of football. The Assembly of the Spanish Federation that Rubiales has called to organize his defense, only includes a symbolic presence of women.

Corruption, sexism, arrogance, lack of transparency, are well-known characteristics of the governance of football, even more than in other Sports, because of the immense power of their governing bodies, itself the result of the global success of the sport. Transparency International has this thread on the structural features that facilitate "sextortion" in sport. FIFA is a global unregulated monopoly. Only the power of public opinion (like with stopping the European Super-League) and perhaps the action of large democratic jurisdictions (like the US or the EU) can constrain them. But success is even then only temporary. For example, the US Attorney General that led the case against FIFA in 2015 works now for a law firm hired by FIFA and has spoken recently favourably of the efforts of the institution to reform.

There are clearly serious governance issues behind a democratic façade. Those who elect the executives depend on the favours of the elected. This unaccountable power can only be stopped by popular pressure, affecting the decisions of sponsors and large democratic jurisdictions.

In previous scandals, Rubiales first line of defense was that attacking him endangered the award of the 2030 World Cup to Spain (with Portugal and Morocco). Independently of whether this World Cup is necessary for Spain, now Rubiales’ resistance to resign is the main reputational obstacle to organize the event. But if Rubiales resigns, the same governance structure and culture that put him in command (and Blatter, Infantino, Laporta) will remain in place.

I have written more about these topics in my book (in Spanish) "Pan y Fútbol" and briefly in my Introduction to IEB's Report on soccer and economics (in English, Spanish and Catalan).

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