LONDON – A global sports organization pummeled by a corruption scandal. The president under pressure to resign. The U.S. Justice Department and FBI leading the investigation. Sponsors clamouring for reform.
FIFA in 2015?
This was the crisis facing the International Olympic Committee in the late 1990s. The IOC, however, managed to move quickly to clean itself up and enact reforms that helped restore credibility and confidence in the Olympic body.
Now, the IOC is being held as a model for FIFA to follow as its tries to dig out of the biggest bribery scandal in its 111-year history. According to the man who helped lead the IOC cleanup, it will be a much more difficult challenge for soccer’s governing body.
“It’s a complete and utter mess,” senior IOC member Dick Pound told The Associated Press. “It may be too late.”
Pound, a Canadian lawyer, headed the internal investigation into the bribery allegations that rocked the IOC to its foundations. The case, which broke in December 1998, centred on the cash, scholarships, medical care, lavish gifts and other favours linked to Salt Lake City’s winning bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
The inducements totalled about $1 million – mere peanuts compared to the more than $150 million cited by the Justice Department in its probe of bribery, racketeering, money-laundering and wire fraud at FIFA over more than two decades.
While the scale of the Salt Lake City allegations was much smaller, the crisis was arguably more severe for the IOC. The organization was held to a higher standard because of the ethical values and ideals associated with the Olympics.
“It was a lot more critical for us,” Pound said by telephone from Montreal. “Our basic existence was hanging in the balance. In the sense of football, so many people know it’s crooked. It doesn’t have the same ethical platform that we did.”
Pound’s investigation led to the expulsion of six IOC members, the resignation of four members and severe warnings for several others. Unlike in the FIFA case, no members faced criminal charges.
Under embattled President Juan Antonio Samaranch, the IOC brought in outside experts to help reshape the organization. Within about a year, the IOC approved a 50-point reform package that included a ban on member visits to bid cities, creation of an independent ethics committee and term limits.
“We took it seriously and did what we had to do,” Pound said. “I don’t know whether FIFA is willing or even able to do the same sort of thing.”
While no one considers the IOC perfect or beyond reproach, Pound said the organization is now viewed in a very different light.
“Everybody accepts that the old days are way behind us and that we operate on the basis of best practice,” he said. “In that respect, we’re kind of a poster child for a lot of the other organizations that really need this.”
Does FIFA have the chance to carry out a similar turnaround?
“The problem with FIFA is that this has been dragging out there for a few years,” former IOC marketing director Michael Payne told the AP. “It’s like a death by a thousand cuts, which undermines confidence.”
U.S. prosecutors brought criminal charges against Salt Lake bid leaders Tom Welch and Dave Johnson, but both men were acquitted by a judge halfway through a federal trial.
In the FIFA case, the Justice Department has indicted 14 people, including seven soccer officials who were arrested in a dawn police raid on a Zurich hotel last week. U.S. authorities are also looking specifically at Blatter, but he has not been formally charged.
Blatter announced his resignation Tuesday, four days after winning re-election to a fifth term. He said he would stay as president until a new election can be held and would work to reform FIFA until then.
As the IOC scandal unfolded, Samaranch also faced calls to resign, but he hung on and the members rallied behind him as the man to drive through the reform process.
“Our conclusion was that you’ve got a better chance with him there of getting this done than if you chucked him out and got somebody else,” Pound said.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin and some other politicians have criticized American authorities for leading the investigation into FIFA, Pound said there should be no escape from the “long arm of the U.S.”
“Sometimes you get a little annoyed about the U.S. flexing its muscles,” he said, “but if you didn’t have something like that, it would go on and on and on. It’s one of these things, if it’s wrong, it’s wrong.”