FIFA: World Cups, Commercialism and Corruption

FIFA: World Cups, Commercialism and Corruption

Image: Beraldo Leal, Flickr

Mark Doidge, University of Brighton

Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, took the illustrious trophy and handed it to the president of Brazil, Dilma Rouseff. In turn, she gave it to Philippe Lahm, the captain of the victorious German team. The FIFA World Cup cemented its place as the world’s foremost sporting spectacle as millions watched the Germans crowned world champions amongst a fanfare of fireworks, glitter, and music.

Earlier, Blatter had taken his seat between Dilma Rouseff, Angela Merkel, and Vladimir Putin. The position of FIFA president grants access to the most powerful politicians in the world. Football has become a global political and financial juggernaut. Celebrity footballers graced the pitches of Brazil, in state of the art stadia that cost millions of dollars. Off the pitch, global brands purchased exclusive marketing rights to align their products with Brazil 2014, whilst global media companies bought television packages at similarly eye-watering prices.

As the 2014 tournament leaves one of its spiritual homes, our attention turns to the next two hosts. Neither Russia nor Qatar have ever hosted the World Cup, and both have attracted widespread attention for the manner in which they won the rights to host the tournament. In order to account for these changes, this essay will argue that the transformation of FIFA since the 1970s aligns with wider global neo-liberal processes. As global institutions lack accountability to any singular national or supranational authority, personal contacts are exploited and corruption becomes endemic.

The Growth of the World Cup

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) was established in 1904, as a small coterie of eight European football federations which sought to strengthen the burgeoning sport of football. Although Argentina and Chile joined FIFA in 1912, Europe asserted its colonial superiority over South America. This led to the establishment of Confederacíon Sudamericana de Fútbol (CONMEBOL) in 1916. Despite the putative ‘international’ character of FIFA, power was clearly divided between the two centres of football’s popularity.

From its inception, the World Cup was used to promote national politics. The augural tournament took place in Uruguay to coincide with the centenary of their independence in 1930. The following two world cups continued this political approach, as Benito Mussolini encouraged Italy to win back-to-back victories by declaring ‘win or die!

The political importance of hosting a World Cup continues today. As neo-liberal economic policies have expanded from Western Europe and the US, nation states have ceded power to private businesses and supranational institutions. Transnational corporations now exploit cheaper labour costs in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia. The result is that Brazil, South Africa and Russia are among the fastest growing emerging national economies. Hosting the World Cup helps to promote these nations as suitable economies for investment. The fact that matches are hosted across the nation in a variety of cities also provides the opportunity to showcase individual cities to a global market.

Yet the World Cup is not merely a vehicle for political respectability. It allows FIFA and its corporate sponsors the opportunity to promote their products to new consumer markets. FIFA has actively sought to expand beyond its Latin American and European strongholds. This started in 1994 when the tournament was held in the US. Since then the finals have been held for the first time in Asia, and Africa; Japan with South Korea hosting in 2002, and South Africa doing the honours in 2010. This strategy continues with the tournament being held in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.

The commercial expansion of the World Cup.

The roots of the World Cup’s commercial expansion began in 1974 with the campaign for the FIFA presidency. Sir Stanley Rous had been president since 1961 and embodied the amateur Corinthian spirit of the bourgeois Europeans that had helped establish and codify sport at the end of the nineteenth century. However, he significantly underestimated the impact of decolonisation. His challenger came from Brazil, a former Portuguese colony. João Havelange, a former Olympic athlete, member of the IOC and president of Brazil’s football confederation, explicitly fought a campaign to attract the new federations from the former colonies. Each federation had one vote at the FIFA congress. He recognised that there was an anti-colonial feeling in these nations. More importantly, he understood that they wanted a platform on the world stage.

The Brazilian physically visited these federations and made personal contacts with the potential voters, many of whom had not seen a FIFA representative before. Significantly, he also promised more resources for facilities. Alongside providing a greater voice for the new federations, he also proposed expanding the World Cup to include more spaces for the new national teams. Until 1978, there were only 16 teams in the finals, and ten came from Europe. Giving Africa, Asia and Central American teams an opportunity to play in the finals would help to democratise the sport.

Havelange needed greater finances in order to fulfil his promise of more teams in the World Cup finals. This was achieved through a dramatic transformation in how the tournament was sponsored.  Havelange was personally connected to Horst Dassler, the son of Adolph Dassler who established Adidas AG. Alongside his business partner, Patrick Nally, Dassler junior persuaded Havelange to restrict the sponsorship and media rights for the finals. With exclusivity, the rights packages would increase in value. Nally and Dassler approached both Pepsi and Coca Cola offering to grant them the exclusive rights to the World Cup. Pepsi delayed and the opportunity was snatched by Coca Cola. FIFA now had one of the world’s biggest brands as an exclusive sponsor. Unsurprisingly, adidas was given the exclusive sportswear rights. Other brands soon followed.

Television rights were also exploited by Dassler and Nally. They established a media company called International Sport and Leisure (ISL). FIFA granted ISL the sole rights to sell World Cup television packages across the globe. Once again, the personal relationship between Dassler and Havelange provided the basis for the contracts. The current FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, is also testament to these personal networks. Before assuming the presidency in 1998, Blatter had been FIFA’s General Secretary under Havelange. Even earlier, he had been given an office in the headquarters of adidas under Horst Dassler’s guidance.

The vast sums of money at FIFA’s disposal enable them to distribute funds in return for votes. This is achieved through their ‘Goal Programme’. It allows facilities to be built in places that have limited access to coaching, pitches and equipment and helps level the playing field between the wealthy federations of Europe.

In parallel, it also permits the distribution of funds to loyal federations. The anthropologist Marcel Mauss observed that a gift is not absent of value but creates a bond between the giver and receiver. In effect a gift places a future obligation on the receiver. Ricardo Teixeira, Havelange’s son-in-law, was head of Brazil’s football federation when England bid to host the 2018 finals. When he asked the FA to come and tell me what you have got for me, he was implicitly saying that he wanted something in return for his vote. It is for this reason that allegations of corruption keep surfacing in relation to the bids of Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022.

FIFA likes to refer to football as their ‘family’. Nepotism flourishes in the Byzantine corridors of the organisation. After the bankruptcy of ISL, the media company founded by Dassler and Nally, Swiss magistrates revealed a £66 million accounting black hole and alleged this was due to bribes to FIFA members. The subsequent television rights were won by Infront Sports and Media whose Chief Executive was none other than Philippe Blatter, the nephew of FIFA’s president Sepp Blatter.

The spectacle of the World Cup ensures that nation states are as keen as ever to host the event and thereby place themselves on the global stage. Potential hosts prostrate themselves at the feet of FIFA. Switzerland nominated Havelange for the Nobel Peace Prize shortly before they constructed a potential bid. France inducted the Brazilian into the Légion d’honneur before they successfully won the right to host the 1998 games. Many FIFA vice-presidents have similar honours. Nicolas Loez of Paraguay specifically asked for a knighthood in return for his vote for England 2018.

Host nations perpetuate the neo-liberal climate through lack of regulation over international organisations and transnational corporations. Jules Boycoff calls this ‘celebration capitalism’. The state takes the risk of hosting the event whilst the corporate sponsors take the profits. FIFA impose new laws on host nations to ensure that any profit made by FIFA or its corporate partners is not subject to tax. They also outlaw ambush marketing to protect these partners, as well as imposing increased security laws to police the inevitable protests.

Ultimately, football merely reflects the growing inequalities in the global community. National governments relinquish control over transnational institutions and corporations, thus facilitating mismanagement and corruption. The state’s complicity permits institutions like FIFA to continue to operate with this culture of corruption. Celebration capitalism ensures that the corporate sponsors remain within the FIFA family. Only through challenging both corporate sponsors and national governments will change FIFA.

Further Reading:

Boycoff, J. (2014) Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games, Abingdon: Routledge.

Jennings, A. (2006) Foul! The secret world of FIFA, London: HarperSport.

Sugden, J. and Tomlinson, A. (1998) FIFA and the contest for world football, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Sugden, J. and Tomlinson, A. (2003) Badfellas: FIFA family at war, London: Mainstream.

Tomlinson, A. (2014) FIFA: The men, the myths and the money, Abingdon: Routledge.

Yallop, D. (1999) How they stole the game, London: Poetic Publishing.


Mark Doidge is Research Fellow in the School of Sport and Service Management at the University of Brighton. He has researched extensively on the role of politics in sport. He is the author of Football Italia: Italian Football in an Age of Globalisation (2015). His early research focuses on political identity in fan culture, especially within the ultras style of support across Europe and into Asia. This has expanded into understanding how activism in fan movements impacts on the wider governance of sport. He has won funding from UEFA researching: Does anti-racist activism by fans challenge racism and xenophobia in European football?