March 6, 2021

5 leadership lessons from the FIFA scandal

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By Alexandra Wrage From Corporate Counsel

With so many compliance lessons to be learned from the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) imbroglio, it’s difficult to know where to start. It’s even more difficult to avoid collapsing into caricature when you consider the $26,000 goody bag watches that weren’t declared by most executives because their value was deemed “trivial”, or the luxury Manhattan condo rented solely for unruly cats.

Amidst the amusing anecdotes, there’s a very real collapse of leadership, especially with respect to creating a culture of compliance.

Mission: Despite having over $1 billion in reserves, FIFA is nevertheless a not-for-profit organization. Its mission, reflected in its slogan, is “For the Game, For the World”. FIFA was founded to regulate and promote world soccer. How have they done? FIFA became enormously profitable under President Sepp Blatter, the discredited 80-year old president who was replaced by Gianni Infantino on Feb. 26. If profits were the only marker, FIFA could be declared a success. But on Blatter’s watch, the reputation of the world’s most popular game reached an almost unimaginable low, with people disfiguring its pristine Zurich headquarters with graffiti and executives booed boisterously as they presented trophies after major matches.

Accountability: FIFA established the Independent Governance Committee (ICG), of which I was a member, to make recommendations for improved governance. It became clear very quickly, however, that Blatter wanted only limited, cosmetic changes. He rejected the idea of independent members on the executive committee—its equivalent of a board of directors—saying that FIFA likes to keep things in the “football family.” Blatter didn’t want to be held accountable and didn’t hold others accountable. As scandal after scandal crashed over his head, Blatter made it clear that he “can’t monitor everyone…”

Transparency: As a nonprofit, greater insight into the books, including salaries, benefits and potential conflicts of interest, seemed like a quick and uncontroversial improvement, but this was also blocked. Blatter and his longstanding stalwart (and Infantino’s mentor), Michele Platini, have been suspended from the soccer community for eight years, later reduced to six, after a finding that a secret, verbal agreement for Blatter to pay Platini $2 million was deemed a “disloyal payment”.

Equality: While FIFA is now chipping away at its men’s club image by carving out slots for women in leadership roles, this is a very new development. Just a few years ago, as a member of the IGC, I was admonished to stop putting women forward for one key position because “a woman would not be acceptable.” Not surprisingly in an organization that devalues half of its community—FIFA represents women’s soccer as well as men’s—FIFA also has an appalling record for failing to protect other constituencies. When African players were jeered at with racial epithets and had items thrown at them from the stands, Blatter said “there is no racism”. “The one who is effected … should say ‘this is a game.’ At the end of the game, we shake hands.” The 2022 World Cup has been awarded, controversially, to Qatar, where women are legally disadvantaged and homosexuality is a crime. Both communities deserve better, but both are at an advantage compared to the kafala workers, (many of whom fit the definition of slave laborers), who are dying by the hundreds in Qatari heat as they build the infrastructure for the World Cup there.

Tone at the : One story captures FIFA’s leadership ethos better than any other. In the months leading up to the 2016 Brazil World Cup, there was growing anger amongst Brazilians who saw FIFA profiting from preferential tax treatment, while neighborhoods in Brazil were razed to make room for World Cup facilities. At the peak of these protests, as thousands of people took to the streets, FIFA held a press conference in order to announce that they had the official champagne of the World Cup: Taittinger. Marie Antoinette may have shown more sensitivity.

Alexandra Wrage is the president of TRACE, an antibribery business organization offering practical tools and services to multinational companies, including TRACEsort, a robust but simple online risk-assessment tool for third-party intermediaries.

IMAGE: Flightlevel80 /

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