Bribe and Prejudice – FIFA presidential elections

Reposted from 2 July 2015

The long-running farce surrounding suspected bribery and corruption at the very top of FIFA appeared to be reaching its final act last month as the US indicted several current and former officials.

And yet through all this, as his empire crumbled around him, people watched with both disbelief and a grim sense of inevitability as Sepp Blatter was re-elected as FIFA president. His apparent resignation several days later brought with it a sense a hope, albeit one that was short-lived. Blatter’s subsequent attempts to walk back from that resignation suggest a man who thinks he can still win an election. But how could the person who brought the FBI to FIFA’s door and has presided over such a dramatic tarnishing of the image of world football believe himself capable of winning a sixth consecutive popular mandate? How could the football boss-turned-white Robert Mugabe impersonator still be the favourite to win? Well, As Carl Bialik writes on fivethirtyeight, it might just have something to do with FIFA’s system of voting.

At first glance, FIFA’s ‘one-member, one-vote’ system of elections, whereby each FIFA member nation casts one vote for president seems perfectly fine. It gives equality to all nations regardless of size or wealth and prevents a few self-interested countries rigging to vote to the detriment of the many. Indeed, several organisations, the UK’s Labour Party among them, have recently moved towards this system for their internal elections rather than continue with an increasingly unpopular electoral college.

The problem comes when it isn’t people who are voting, but rather nations. Whilst each nation may have an equal vote, the number of people that vote represents is far from equal. The people of China (population over 1.3 billion) have the same single vote as the residents of FIFA’s smallest member, Montserrat with just 5,215 inhabitants. Granted, this probably isn’t the Chinese people’s most pressing concern about having their voice heard, but it must rub at least a little salt into the wound. Under this system, a shrewd candidate with questionable morals could buy themselves a decent number of votes on the cheap if they targeted particularly small members. And as Bialik writes, even legitimate funding can be used to influence the vote. A few million dollars could go a long way in nations where their only football stadium is a glorified playing field, far further than it would in England or Brazil.

So what would a fairer system look like? The first instinct is probably to investigate giving more votes to the more populous nations. After all, such a system is used in the European Parliament, where Germany currently enjoys sixteen times the number of votes as Malta, and it would prevent a large number of votes being bought easily. However, even with a European Parliament-style weighting system to give the smaller members a boost, it would still mean that these nations struggled to make their voices heard and the top eight most populous members could end up with more votes than the other 201 combined. It would also be very difficult for many in the international footballing community to watch all the power suddenly rush to China and India, neither of which have particularly strong footballing traditions. China have only qualified for the men’s world cup once, in 2002, and although they have done better in the women’s tournament it has been against an admittedly smaller field of competition. India has never played in either tournament, the closest they came was when they qualified for the 1950 world cup in Brazil by default after the other three Asian nations withdrew. They refused to attend however, after FIFA ruled that they weren’t allowed to play barefoot.

So if we don’t want population to be an issue and we also think that teams with recent footballing success should have a greater say, how else could we run this vote? Well, the FIFA rankings might be a good place to start. They reward teams who do well in football, and unlike something such as population which is unlikely to change very quickly, people can rise and fall through the rankings pretty rapidly, making it less susceptible to corruption. There’s no point in bribing someone a year in advance of a vote when a poor tournament or even a couple of games could send them tumbling down the rankings and the weighting of their vote with it.

Of course this system wouldn’t be perfect. The methods by which FIFA determines its rankings have been criticised for many years with seemingly odd situations whereby a team can suffer in the rankings playing in fewer international friendlies, or that time Brazil dropped down the table before the 2014 world cup for not playing any qualification games – a result of them automatically qualifying as hosts. A quick look at the rankings will also highlight another imbalance; the majority of the high-ranked teams are from one confederation. Currently, 14 out of the top 20 men’s teams are from UEFA with another five from the South American confederation, CONMEBOL. The women’s rankings are only marginally more representative, but over half the current top 20 are still drawn from UEFA members. One simple way to even this out would be to combine both rankings and give the maximum vote weightings to the top teams in each confederation. An illustrative example might give Germany and Argentina the same amount of clout as Iran, Algeria, Costa Rica and New Zealand.

No system is ever going to be perfect, and the temptation of money is always going to lure some people into corrupt practices, but if FIFA wants to be serious about cleaning up their act then Blatter’s successor (barring the distinct possibility that this ends up being Blatter himself) needs to start from scratch when looking at the whole culture and structure of the organisation. Perhaps that should start with how the president himself is elected. Oh, and term limits. They could definitely do with some term limits.



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