Corporations that sponsor Fifa are right to fear the reputational risks of being linked to football’s world governing body, which has become sullied by scandal
While sports fans have been following the heroics of the world’s greatest footballers at the World Cup in Brazil, murky soccer politics continues to fester.
Fifa – football’s world governing body and custodians of the World Cup – has for years been accused of corrupt practices. But the awarding of the 2022 tournament to the tiny, but massively rich, Gulf state of Qatar has attracted unprecedented negative publicity. Qatar’s national side has never qualified for a World Cup and it has a climate entirely unsuited to playing football in June and July when the World Cup is held.
Allegations of massive bribes, made to Fifa delegates before crucial votes in 2010, have been swirling around, most recently from a Sunday Times newspaper investigation published in June. At the centre of many of these allegations is Qatar’s former Fifa executive committee member Mohamed bin Hammam. He has form, having been banned from football for life in 2012 for his part in a separate corruption scandal. Qatar’s World Cup organising committee denies any wrong-doing and argues that Bin Hammam was not part of the winning bid team.
A number of big global brands that invest huge sums sponsoring Fifa and the World Cup are now worried about the 2022 tournament’s bidding process – and no doubt their own reputations. Of Fifa’s six main sponsors, Adidas, Coca-Cola, Hyundai/Kia, Sony and Visa have all issued statements expressing concern.
Only the airline Emirates has remained silent. Alexandra Wrage, president of anti-bribery organisation Trace, and a former member of a Fifa independent governance committee, suggests that sponsors are right to be worried. “If sponsors are perceived as propping up an organisation with shoddy governance and inadequate accountability, the value of sponsorship is diminished,” she says. Business intelligence specialist Polecat has been tracking how Fifa and the World Cup are being debated and discussed online and on social media.
Polecat’s director of strategic research, Yasmin Crowther, says: “Our research shows that the sponsor companies have come under scrutiny and social media intensifies this focus. Their public expressions of concern certainly have done more for their standing than silence. But the challenge for sponsors is to hold Fifa to account against the highest standards, even after the World Cup is over.”
Fifa president Sepp Blatter, himself a figure dogged by controversy, appointed American lawyer Michael Garcia to head an investigation into allegations of corruption at Fifa in 2012. Garcia’s deliberations are now coming to an end, with his report due to be lodged with Fifa’s ethics committee around the end of July.
It is not clear whether the new allegations published by the Sunday Times will be included and how much of the report will be made public, if any. Wrage points out that it is always hard to uncover bribery as “it’s typically a crime transacted between two parties that have a shared interest in keeping it quiet”.
She is also concerned that linking payments to intention is hard to prove. “It may be possible to determine that money changed hands and that votes were provided, but not that there is hard evidence linking the two.” Such a conclusion, Wrage argues, could undermine the report’s credibility.
But whatever the public might think of Fifa, the world loves football and there is value in having a brand associated with the game. So what is the next step for the sponsors, and might they step away? Maybe. Wrage says: “It’s difficult to know where the tipping point is. I would have thought that the corruption allegations, the horrifying labour practices and the laws against homosexuality in Qatar would have been sufficient to rerun the World Cup vote, but apparently we’re not there yet.”
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