7 March 2016
The recent election of Gianni Infantino and adoption of a package of minor reforms has done little to reassure those who closely follow FIFA that football’s international governing body is about to fundamentally change its ways.
Indeed, much about Infantino himself gives ample cause for concern that this is a depressingly predictable case of “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss”: an affluent, affable Swiss football administrator and loyal deputy to an influential and corrupt senior member of the FIFA family elected on a crowd-pleasing platform of increasing the size of the World Cup and sending more cash to local associations while defending the legacy of his corrupt predecessor seems an implausible new broom.
The fact that he was born in a village only 10 kilometres away from the birthplace of Sepp Blatter doesn’t help in this regard either. And while many commentators have assumed a cautiously optimistic view — that Infantino was the least bad presidential candidate, and that even cursory reforms are better than none — the emerging consensus rightly appears to be that nothing that happened at the recent Congress in Zurich signals a move toward the kind of root-and-branch systemic transformation that FIFA urgently requires.
The specific ways in which this perfectly reasonable skepticism has been expressed, however, is what has been most interesting, reflecting a persistent and widespread mystification regarding actual solutions to FIFA’s woes that has long characterised most discourse on this subject. No one seems to know what the hell should be done about or with FIFA, an organisation that appears so utterly bent that none of us can imagine a way to straighten it out.
If we are potentially amidst a moment of opportunity for real reform, what specifically should we be pushing for other than the abstract and inadequate platitudes currently on offer? If the political economy of international football governance requires reimagining, what concretely is the best case scenario for FIFA that we who care about such things should be advocating for?
Perhaps oddly, I argue here that the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek (right) is singularly well equipped to answer these questions, to helps us imagine what football is and should be for in the 21st century so that we can work to invent a better future for football. To that end, I draw upon his work to advance a 10-point plan that is grounded in a deep analysis of the appeal and the antagonisms of the game itself, that is practically and almost immediately implementable, politically and economically feasible, and fit for the purpose of managing what the sport is and will be, rather than what it once was.
Before I get to the plan itself — and because I lack the space here to carefully develop each of these ideas as fully as I should — I will outline some preliminary Žižekian assumptions that inform this analysis.
To the wider question of whether or not reform or revolution of FIFA is required, it seems clear that only an ambitious combination of both can lead to the creation of an organisation that is up to the task of governing modern football, but that genuinely revolutionary change is definitely required. Žižek’s perspective is ideally situated to help us in this regard, and transposing his critical ideas about the world/ capitalism in general into the realm of football/capitalism specifically opens up productive ways of understanding and responding to this predicament. From a Žižekian analytical perspective, the following must be true of any attempts to fix FIFA:
a: “It’s the economy, stupid.” Most importantly, football’s problems are symptomatic of its increasingly complex relationship to modern Capital, and must be treated as such. Moreover, they are inevitable consequences of this relationship, rather than evidence of an avoidable systemic breakdown that can be corrected with a little tinkering.
b: Solutions must be found from beyond the football/capitalist denkverbot, Žižek’s term for a “prohibition against thinking” beyond certain widely agreed to, and fundamentally conservative, premises which necessarily mirror those that exist in the world at large. In this case, solutions which focus on corruption scandals, personnel changes, and minor governance reforms to FIFA’s operations are the most widely discussed remedies precisely because they will ensure that nothing actually changes, that the matrix of political and economic power remains as it is. Real solutions lie elsewhere.
c: Football administration must be rethought as an enterprise that is not just a business: FIFA is in fact responsible for managing a globally shared resource, a resource that exists not on the field of play, buried deep within great players and teams, but exclusively in the relationship between this field and its legions of fans, who are the real and only source of its incredible appeal and monetary value. While the mechanisms by which this transfer of wealth occur are conveniently opaque, FIFA is wealthy with our money, and should be managed accordingly.
d: The challenge of football administration, then, is at bottom a challenge of the commons, and Žižek believes that capitalist systems are fundamentally ill equipped to address major problems of the commons in the 21st century.
e: Football’s embrace of Capital has had and continues to have consequences: capitalism has victims, particularly those who are excluded from, but necessary to, its operation. If football wishes to continue to tarry with Capital, it needs to do so on behalf of those who suffer from it, rather than relentlessly profiting at their expense. It needs to make central to its reason for being those who are currently the most marginalized by its way of doing business.
f: The ideology of football governance (what Žižek would call football’s “unknown knowns”) needs radical transformation: it needs to be for something else. FIFA can and must be made to stand for that which is irresistible about the beautiful game, not symbolic of the worst features of its current excesses as a business.
SO, HOW can these theoretical claims help world football out of its current deadlock? With growing intensity throughout the latest and most spectacular FIFA crisis culminating in the recent election, the world’s media has been awash in critical commentary spiralling around one fundamental question: what is to be done? There is near consensus on the basic notion that sweeping changes to world football governance are urgently required, but little agreement on what precisely to do.
Reform? Revolution? FIFA? A new governing body entirely? To date, none of the proposed remedies has acquired significant uptake on the part of those who care about the game of football.
Out of these debates, we have heard lots of righteous criticisms of FIFA and many injunctions to improve its governance and enhance its transparency, but nothing that will actually materially transform the organisation for the better.
This imaginative failure is a familiar issue for critics on the left: consider, for example, how little changed in the banking system following the 2008 financial crisis, when things had become so calamitous that any sweeping proposal would have been seriously considered had they been available. We need a plan.
The problem (or one of them) — in both the world of football and the world at large — is that for Žižek one of the unique features of modern Capital and its symptomatic systems after the so-called ‘end of history’ is that they are so deeply entrenched that alternatives seem beyond comprehension. As he has observed “it is now easier to imagine the destruction of the earth and everything in it than it is to imagine significant changes to our economic system.”
However, the dismal depths to which elite football has been dragged of late have made even the most radical, exciting, egalitarian possibilities widely imaginable, in some ways perhaps even inevitable. Žižek says that “[In] football we win if we obey the rules. In politics we win if we have the audacity to change the rules.”
These, then, are my proposals for the new rules of FIFA — or of whichever body replaces it — and they are intended to change it for good. Some are familiar, others entirely new. I will begin with those reforms which will be required to reign in FIFA’s perfectly natural leanings toward various sorts of corruption (dependence and otherwise), clientelism, and the perpetuation of a self-serving old-boys club.
While I go on to propose some more revolutionary, fundamental transformations of FIFA that are also required for these reforms to be meaningful, these are nonetheless all important policies that if implemented together would help FIFA realize its remarkable potential. So what precisely is required?
Term limits of four years for every elected position within FIFA as well as for each of its national associations. The recently adopted policy limiting presidential terms to twelve years is woefully insufficient.
- FIFA is currently structured like any other kind of business in that it is run by specialized career executives motivated by political and economic self-interest: it isn’t one, and it is inappropriate that it should be populated as though it were. It is vital that we remove the primary political incentive—the desire to maintain a hold on power at any cost—that has led the organization to its current deadlock.
- A reasonable counterargument to this point (and to several others below) is that FIFA lacks the authority to mandate its members to do this, which is strictly speaking correct. Critically, however, it is also true that national associations almost exclusively derive their power and wealth from their affiliation with FIFA. If national associations want to participate in FIFA tournaments, and if they want to have a say in how that organisation is run, then they must and will comply .
An immediate move toward not just greater but absolute transparency of both governance and accounting decisions for the entirety of FIFA, as well as for each of its associations.
- Each body should receive a template of accounting / reporting regulations to comply with each year, which will be independently monitored.
- This will include a mandated percentage of spending in certain areas as a condition of FIFA’s continued distribution of funds.
- None of these entities are for profit businesses per se and they should not be run as such: rather, they are managers of a shared global resource and act on behalf of its stakeholders (fans, players, etc.). Their accounting and governance practices should be clearly visible to the stakeholders they represent.
The encouragement of broader and more participatory involvement in football governance by its stakeholders and communities of interests at every level of the game.
- All elected positions within FIFA and its associations must be open elections in which any interested member of the footballing community can vote electronically. The technology is already available for this kind of direct democracy: it is logistically simple, affordable, and secure.
- As a lifelong player and supporter of the game, I should be allowed as much of a say as anyone else in determining who will make important decisions about the management of the shared resource I love in their role as head of the Canadian Soccer Association, CONCACAF, and FIFA. I should be provided with all of the information required to make these decision in as informed a way as possible: this means ready access to financial reports, candidate’s voting records, and so forth.
- A further and crucial advantage of this measure is that it will (in concert with other proposals here) give football’s stakeholders a reason to care about, and a role to play in, football governance that is currently completely absent, but which I take to be a necessary component of any program to really change FIFA. An under-examined reason why FIFA has become so disreputable is that too few people care enough about how badly it is run: we need to change that.
The move to open up the elections to the public as voters must coincide with an abolition of the recently implemented barriers which restrict who can apply for top FIFA governance positions. So long as they receive the approval of an independent ethics committee and are the candidate for the job who receives the greatest level of support from those they aspire to represent, then they are the woman or man for the job. Again, this must apply not just to FIFA but also to all its associations.
FIFA has made much of its ‘apolitical’ status as an entity: this has always been dangerous nonsense, as it is not, nor indeed can there be, such a beast as an apolitical organisation with the size and scope of those which govern football. It needs to stop pretending otherwise, and proceed as an organisation that possesses and is motivated by social, political, and economic principles, as all organisations do. FIFA would do well to show much needed leadership in the field of sport in this regard, and as it is beholden to the Olympic Charter, it is currently failing to meet its obligation to embrace principles of Olympism “without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”
- One of these commitments, for instance (and there are many more ), ought to be a feminist one. The world’s women—the fastest growth area of the game on and off the field, and the demographic that has the most potential to more fully contribute its talents to world football—must be better represented both in greater numbers and in positions of greater influence within all levels of football governance.
- An initial move in this direction might begin with policy requiring that no organisation have a male President for two consecutive terms, which would ensure both an uptake in the number of female candidates holding positions of power, as well as increasing the impulse to give interested female candidates the opportunity to demonstrate the skills and experience needed to hold higher office.
- Gender equity and acceptance of sexual diversity must also be prerequisites for continued eligibility for the funding that FIFA redistributes. Countries like Saudi Arabia, for instance, that actively prohibit the involvement of girls and women in football, should have their funding halved to reflect this. Countries like Uganda, where homosexuality is illegal and who therefore effectively prohibit the involvement of openly gay players in the game or gay fans in the stands should be similarly penalised. Furthermore, nations that fail to meet benchmarks in this regard ought to be prohibited from consideration as tournament hosts.
A massive reduction in the obscene remuneration and benefits currently enjoyed by football executives is required in order to eliminate the grotesque inequities between the game’s administrators and its real world fans. The days of first class air travel, on call limousines, seven star hotels, bountiful free tickets for games, lavish gifts and opulent per diems needs to end and end immediately.
None of these things are befitting an organisation whose core responsibility is to act as stewards of something commonly owned. Remuneration should be in line with those of other public sector managers in the same country.
FIFA must implement a strict policy of zero tolerance for ethics breaches, and put an end to the practice of providing only bans to those found looting the spoils of the game. These punishments ought to be supplemented with football organisations pressuring law enforcement agencies to rigorously pursue legal actions against those enriching themselves and their friends through their theft of a common resource, as well as by the robust legal pursuit of stolen wealth.
The implementation of moves to bring an end to the discordant demographic homogeneity and accordingly narrow focus of those charged with managing football.  FIFA and company do not just preside over the elite men’s game, but also the women’s game, the development of the game for youth and for the differently abled, for amateur players, players unions, supporters groups, and so forth. Advocates for these groups must play a much more central role in all football governance.
- This must be reflected not only in the makeup of FIFA’s new power structure, but also more fully in how it redistributes our wealth. The associations and federations must be given guidelines about the appropriate proportionate allocations that must be made with their FIFA income to ensure that this diversity is represented, and should be penalised if they fail to do so.
A removal of FIFA’s ability to select World Cup hosts, which is emblematic of most of their problems. Instead, the finals should rotate through each continent in a prearranged order (as they once did) but with hosting rights given to the nation from the next host continent in succession whose team does the best at the preceding World Cup finals. (For instance, if Asia is scheduled to host the 2026 tournament, then the Asian team that does the best in the 2022 finals earns the right to host the next one.)
The only caveat here is that in order to be eligible to exercise the opportunity to host, nations must meet certain easily devised benchmarks regarding human rights records, press freedoms, environmental records, levels of income inequality, tolerance of racist or homophobic behaviour within a country’s domestic game, etc.
World Cup finals have become prestigious tools of geopolitical soft power, brand building opportunities for nation states, and excuses for socially, economically, and environmentally ruinous neoliberal deformations of the local spaces in which they occur. This is as unnecessary as it is wrong: FIFA should restrict (as another condition of hosting) rather than encourage the creation of new stadia and tournament-centric public spending on new infrastructure projects.
This globally minded proposal will accomplish several things:
- It will empower footballers, and create tournaments that are more exciting for more people. National teams that may not have a chance to win the competition can still compete to win something meaningful: continental supremacy and the honour of hosting the next tournament.
- It will de-incentivise irresponsible spending on the part of host nations, who will have less than four years to prepare, and no need to boast about the erection of white elephant stadia and so-called urban development schemes as part of a competitive bidding process. Simultaneously, it will incentivise more appropriate types of spending: the only way a nation can increase the chances of their hosting a tournament will be long and short term investment in their football development programs and infrastructure, and ensuring they comply with the ethical benchmarks required of host nations.
- Because of the reduced emphasis on construction and infrastructure, fans will actually get to experience something approximating the actual nations where these events take place, rather than crude simulacra of those nations. It may well happen that tournaments will take place in smaller nations and that the matches will be played in smaller or less palatial stadiums or that visiting fans will not get to stay in new 5-star hotels, but this is the world that we live in.
- It will considerably reduce the cost of the World Cup for FIFA —who earned $4.8bn but spent $2.3bn on the last tournament—and even more so for the citizens of host nations, who customarily find themselves paying (and paying much more than they were told) for the public spending sprees their governments undertake in preparation for the tournament.
- It will remove one of the two main sources  of both dependence and outright financial corruption responsible for many of FIFA’s troubles. President Infantino has already articulated his desire that future World Cup hosting decisions be made in ways that inspire greater public confidence: this policy will ensure that this is so, and can simultaneously help enhance both the excitement and the reputation of the tournament.
And finally: not only in the response to the most recent manifestation of the FIFA crisis, but for decades, critical thinking about elite football has been limited by Žižek’s denkverbot. The current state of unprecedented disrepute regarding the international governance of the game, and the fact that it appears likely that its new shape will be largely determined within the next few years, have opened up hitherto unimaginable possibilities for the future of world football to be imagined from beyond the parameters of the denkverbot. Indeed, if football governance is to be properly transformed, this is precisely what is required: we need a revolutionary shift in FIFA’s very reason for being, but lack a vision of what that would even look like.
I think it begins with a return to the most fundamental question about the beautiful game which we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking and talking about, possibly because it has long seemed a settled issue: other than itself, what is football and FIFA for? Given the specific nature of FIFA’s central political antagonisms, but also in recognition of its unique potential, I propose the following final idea as FIFA’s claim for continued institutional relevance:
Since I have argued that FIFA needs to be actively for something, I suggest a literal commitment to its existing primary organisational claim: FIFA should actually be “For the Game. For the World.” 50% of all of FIFA’s income should be dispersed annually to the United Nations World Food Program  into perpetuity, with the rest—vastly reduced existing expenses , operating costs, and other necessary commitments aside—going to the national associations. This should begin with an immediate payment of one half of its current approximate US$1.5billion cash reserves, which it has steadily been growing for no good purpose (a decade ago they kept about one fifth this amount in reserve). 
- This first donation alone in the hands of the UN WFP would save the lives of around five million men, women and children who are currently living in extreme poverty  by providing them with enough food for a year. This would be a historic and transformative accomplishment, the greatest thing that has ever happened as a result of 22 humans kicking around a ball.
- This ongoing commitment will help the UN in its Zero Hunger by 2030 campaign , whose aim is to sustainably end hunger and extreme poverty on our planet within the next decade and a half. Imagine a world in which the FIFA family were among those actually leading this charge.
- This should not be misread an act of charity or of corporate reputation scrubbing: rather, it is a long overdue (re)payment that is owed to those from whom it has been taken through the disastrous entangling of the beautiful game with Capital and its interests.
- Having said that, it will be hugely politically and publicly popular, is immediately implementable, and would more quickly than anything else help restore FIFA’s battered reputation in the eyes of football fans, players, the media, and their worried corporate sponsors , all of whom would now be associated with an organisation that was a credit to the sport it represents and the world in which it operates. It will mark a clean break of the most radical sort with past practices, and help FIFA take first, shaky steps to demonstrating the kind of leadership in international sports governance that one would hope to see from those who preside over the world’s most popular pastime. 
Our view of what football’s power can accomplish has become so shrunken that much of this may seem fanciful or Utopian: it isn’t.
As FIFA’s continued existence still hangs in the balance even after the recent election, the Utopian view is actually that it can continue indefinitely largely as it has with some minor personnel changes and the implementation of a few positive reforms.
It needs a radical reimagining but lacks a vision of what that might be, and therefore a window of opportunity has appeared within which we can and must be audacious enough to change the rules, and offer an alternative answer to the question of what FIFA and football is for.
In the coming months and years, we have the chance to fundamentally revolutionise the political economy of world football governance, to reshape the ideological framework within which football is defined and understood, and to work toward a game that is properly for the people.
We can and must now struggle together to change football for good, and we can do so, in the words of the peerless footballing philosopher Socrates, while simultaneously “struggling for freedom, for respect for human beings, for equality, for ample and unrestricted discussions, for a professional democratisation of unforeseen limits, and all of this while preserving the ludic, and the joyous, and the pleasurable nature of this activity.”
Dr. Tim Walters works as a College Professor at Okanagan College in British Columbia, Canada. He writes about Slavoj Žižek, football, radical politics, and late-capitalism from a Marxist perspective. He is the author of a forthcoming book-length study of the ideological function and revolutionary potential of the commanding heights of modern football — the Premier League, UEFA Champion’s League, and FIFA World Cup — from a Žižekian perspective. For his sins, he supports Middlesbrough FC. Tim can be reached at TWalters@okanagan.bc.ca