BERLIN (Reuters) - The bribery and corruption allegations around soccer’s world ruling body have thrown it into the same maelstrom that once hit the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
FIFA President Sepp Blatter is under fire from sponsors, national politicians and even FIFA members to reform the organization, while Qatar faces allegations, which it denies, that it bribed FIFA delegates to vote for it to host the 2022 World Cup.
In 1998, the IOC was caught in its own bribes-for-votes scandal involving the 2002 Salt Lake City winter Olympics.
A whistleblower exposed the fact that several IOC members, who at the time could freely visit cities bidding to host the world’s biggest multi-sport event, had received cash or gifts in exchange for voting for the U.S. bid to stage the winter games.
Will FIFA now follow the IOC’s example and reform?
“FIFA knows exactly what it needs to do. It just has to look at what happened to the IOC and how far-reaching the consequences can be,” an IOC insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. “There are not many ways out of this crisis. You need to cut your losses.”
But Olympic experts argue that change at the IOC may be easier than at FIFA because the Olympics body has a much greater pool of voting members and because the product it pitches needs more careful tending. Is soccer so big it cannot fail?
“FIFA World Cup is the biggest sport event in viewership and interest. It matters across the globe,” Hartmut Zastrow, CEO at SPORT+MARKT sports business consultancy, told Reuters.
“From a sponsor perspective what other opportunity do you have to associate yourself with football for four weeks and the weeks and months in advance of the World Cup when everyone is watching.”
The multi-million dollar Olympics scandal burst into the open in 1998 after Swiss IOC member Marc Hodler exposed wide-spread corruption among members who had sold their votes to Salt Lake City in exchange for college scholarships, skiing holidays and cash bribes. In turn, the U.S. city had been picked to host the 2002 Games.
The affair sparked separate investigations within the IOC and the United States and severely damaged the IOC’s credibility, threatening its prime product worth billions in TV rights and sponsorship.
Under intense public scrutiny, the IOC was forced to act. Ten members were expelled or forced to resign, while 10 others were sanctioned in what then president Juan Antonio Samaranch called the organization’s “worst moment.”
Since then the IOC has strictly controlled the bidding process, banning all members from traveling to candidate cities unless they are part of the official evaluation commission.
Bid cities are also closely monitored and their access to voting members clearly defined in a two-year campaign process.
The election of current President Jacques Rogge, untainted by the Salt Lake City scandal, to succeed Samaranch in 2001 was further aimed at reinforcing the image that the IOC was making a clean start.
In contrast to FIFA, there are now age limits and term restrictions for new IOC members and the president himself, who can stay in his post for a maximum of 12 years. Samaranch held the position for 21 years.
So far, FIFA shows few signs it is prepared to undertake such serious reforms. The organization has suspended four senior members over accusations they either bought votes or offered to sell them and President Blatter promises “radical reform” including boosting its ethics committee.
But similar promises have been made before and little has fundamentally changed. Blatter, who has been in charge since 1998 following the 24-year reign of Brazilian Joao Havelange, is seen by critics as part of the problem.
Soccer’s World Cup hosts are chosen by 20 or so members of the FIFA Executive Committee, while more than 100 IOC members have the right to vote during Olympics elections, making the vote more difficult to influence.
The Olympics also differ from the World Cup in that they are a carefully-designed amalgam of dozens of events that needs to be kept relevant to keep attracting fans, sponsors and media revenues.
Soccer, on the other hand, is constant, with guaranteed vast public support.
Blatter pledged on Wednesday that future World Cup bids would not just be elected by the executive committee as was the case for the tournaments until 2022, but by all 208 federations from around the world.
Will that be enough?
“If FIFA is not going to do the game any good, the game may have to do something to FIFA,” IOC member Dick Pound, who led the IOC’s anti-corruption drive linked to Salt Lake City, warned on Sunday.
Writing by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Simon Robinson
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