MUCH has been said about the most recent – and ongoing – scandal regarding football’s international governing body Fifa, following last week’s indictment bombshell and several cross-Atlantic arrests by the US Department of Justice and Swiss authorities.
This saga is ongoing so there might be more arrests in the coming weeks, while some of those who have been arrested or named might be let off the hook because of weak evidence or absence of incriminating evidence.
Apart from many soccer-loving fans from around the world, the key watchers of this developing story are Fifa’s sponsors, also referred to as marketing partners. Understandably, their initial responses have been carefully worded, restricting themselves to expressing concern and urging Fifa to do all it can to restore proper governance and faith in its operations.
Despite the hopes of many anti-Sepp Blatter watchers, notably in the USA and Europe, there was no overwhelming “or else” at the end of any of the sponsors’ initial statements, apart from Visa.
Having been Fifa’s marketing partner since 2007 and ostensibly needing to demonstrate that it is reputation conscious, Visa has issued the strongest statement yet. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, it said that corruption investigations against Fifa could cause the company to end its agreement with the Fédération Internationale de Football Association.
It went on to warn Fifa that it would “reassess our sponsorship if you fail to rebuild a culture with strong ethical practices to restore the reputation of the games for fans everywhere”. On the other hand Adidas, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s told the journal that they were monitoring the situation, while Hyundai Motor Company said it was “deeply concerned” about the allegations.
They were careful not to be seen to be making threats to sever relationships.
While the re-election of Blatter to a fifth term as Fifa president was welcomed by many in Africa, Asia and South America, key players in the US and Europe were not impressed at all. The president of the Union of European Football Associations (Uefa), Michel Platini, issued a statement saying that “I’m proud that Uefa has defended and supported a movement for change at Fifa. Change which, in my opinion, is crucial if this organisation is to regain its credibility.”
Not to be outdone, English Football Association chairperson Greg Dyke issued his own statement, declaring: “The idea Blatter could reform Fifa is suspect. I’d be very surprised if he was still in this job in two years’ time.”
As if this was not enough, retired Portuguese footballer and former Fifa presidential candidate Luis Figo was even less generous when he declared that “[Blatter’s victory] has only served to endorse the election of a man who can’t remain in charge of world football”.
He made sure to add: “Today was another dark day in Zurich. Fifa has lost but, above everything, football has lost and everyone who truly cares about it has lost too.”
Blatter has since stepped down as FIFA president.
The events going on around Fifa are seen by many sceptics as having political undertones. Many of the Africans, Asians and South Americans who overwhelmingly supported Blatter did so almost to spite the USA and Europe. They see these two blocs as being bitter for having lost the bids to host the Fifa World Cup in 2018 (the UK) and 2022 (the US), and of wanting to take it away from Russia for political reasons.
The fact that three consecutive Fifa World Cup tournaments would be hosted by South Africa (2010), Brazil (2014) and Russia (2018) – three members of the Brics formation – has been cited by some as a bitter pill to swallow for the antagonists. This is also linked to Russia’s move to accept the Crimea back into its fold after last year’s independence referendum, which was widely condemned by the West.
Captive Fifa brand
In such a highly politicised environment Fifa’s corporate reputation is held captive, overshadowed by a cacophony of stories bordering on personality clashes and geopolitical interests. In the end the sponsors will be vulnerable to blackmail, on the one hand pressurised by the West to remember which side their bread is buttered and, on the other, by Blatter’s supporters in the developing world, dangling the promise of access to a broader geographic presence for their brands.
As elected head Blatter had a tightrope to walk. With an estimated $177m raised in sponsorships alone in 2014, he had to make sure that whatever he did made it easy for Fifa’s sponsors to justify staying put. None of them would like to be accused of having acted prematurely, or of having done nothing and thus condoning corrupt behaviour.
My guess is that the sponsors will still keep observing the story as it unfolds, as it is possible that sooner or later gloves will come off when Europe and the USA become more desperate to retake control of Fifa and, possibly, discredit Russia’s hosting of the 2018 Fifa World Cup.
How they play their cards will determine who ends up with egg on their face.