By J Hutcherson – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 1, 2011) US Soccer Players — On Wednesday, FIFA took its latest step on toward a new future that is supposed to stop the barrage of questions over corruption, ethics, and accountability.  I’m willing to bet that for most of you this story has already fallen well down your personal watch list, and that’s part of the problem.

One of the most valuable lessons FIFA has learned since the summer of ethical lapses is the value in controlling the timeline.  That was the most significant moment from yesterday’s press conference announcing the findings of Swiss law professor Mark Pieth, the author of the independent governance report and chair of the Independent Governance Committee that is intended to direct FIFA’s reformation movement.

For an organization known for acting and reacting as quickly as possible, FIFA is now switching to the long view.  Pieth’s "Governing FIFA" report needs to pass through FIFA’s multi-level bureaucracy and then wait a year before taking effect.  In other words, there will be more than enough time to tinker with the final product. 

A few things immediately stand out.  The Governing FIFA report (available here as a pdf) stresses the evolution of FIFA from a governing body to a corporate structure capable of generating significant revenue.  Per the report, it’s FIFA as a multinational enterprise shouldering all that entails rather than the traditional understanding of a non-profit organization with charitable ambitions. 

With that in mind, member associations become as much shareholders as anything else.  Though that might seem obvious from the outside, it’s not the way FIFA self-defines.  This is a ‘for the good of the game’ organization that even in moments of crisis keeps to the ideal of one vote per country equality in the organization and helping all over the world.  That the 1994 World Cup showed it was possible to generate significant revenue from that marquee event simply gave world soccer’s governing body more resources. 

Even with all evidence to the contrary, in their own self-examination FIFA is distinct.  President Sepp Blatter likes to talk of mandates, and that’s a key component to understanding how FIFA operates.  Even with the multiple scandals concerning how FIFA does business, they would likely stress that they’re not operating with traditional cost cases and business models. Instead, it’s the good of the game.  In their dialogue, that’s the reason for using the World Cup to open new markets rather than returning to sure things.  That was how last year’s World Cup hosting vote was justified, pushing against those countries that have shown they can maximize revenue with major events as simply sore losers. 

Setting aside individual gain, there are a number of decisions FIFA would have made differently had it been the overall profit motive.  It is highly unlikely they’re going to suddenly take on corporate responsibility when they’ve never adjusted to that as their role.  Benefitted, certainly but that’s not the same thing. 

Pieth’s report recognizes that, and goes a step further in making it clear that the rest of us – those outside of FIFA – are well aware of the appearance/reality distinction in play.  From page 10 if his report:

Sports are, more than ever, linked to money and to power. One needs to be careful therefore not to expect that sports take place in a vacuum, in a better world than real life.

As much as anything we’ve seen following last December’s World Cup hosting vote and the FIFA presidential election cycle with its resulting corruption charges, this is a clear defining of FIFA’s primary problem.  With a predictable yet startling regularity, FIFA’s leadership returns to the idea that they’re operating for the greater good, even when individual bad actors do wrong. 

This isn’t a new point, but it’s worth returning to Blatter’s press conference following the Congress that reelected him.  In a presidential election cycle that saw the only other candidate – a sitting Confederation president from the county that just won hosting rights to a World Cup – withdraw under allegations of votes for bribes, Blatter chose to lecture the media on professional decorum in the workplace. 

If you happened to see the live feed, this was FIFA as ageing relative more concerned with the tenor of the conversation than the quality.  It was an open and immediate disconnection following one of the more bizarre sequences of events in the organization’s history.  What we saw was a moment of shamelessness when what needed to happen for the good of the game was a moment of humility. 

Again, returning to that appearance/reality distinction, there’s no doubt in my mind that FIFA and its leadership considers themselves humbled.  They’ve seen colleagues taken down by ethics probes and an organization they’ve devoted significant portions of their working lives to called into question all over the world.  Where that’s failed is how it has been relayed to the rest of us.  Extending the season for reform does very little to change that feeling.

Comments, questions, solutions to problems that have yet to present themselves.  Please, tell me all about it.

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