FIFA and Corruption: Spin Only Works on the Ball

This week’s metastasizing soccer mess reminds me of the 2002 Winter Olympics bribery scandal in Salt Lake City, where I live. With so much trust squandered, can anybody save FIFA?

So far, the debacle has seen 14 people indicted, several more arrested, and allegations of bribery and kickbacks of more than $150 million during the past two decades. The initial response of FIFA president, Sepp Blatter? “We—or I—cannot monitor everyone all of the time,” he pleaded to the FIFA Congress in Zurich. “If people want to do wrong, they will also try to hide it.”

Then came more tap-dancing. The scandal was “unprecedented,” he claimed. But, reminded of accusations of financial mismanagement under his leadership in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2011, he said he reluctantly was “willing to acknowledge” the responsibility he had been denying. Alas, not so much. After all, he said, he shared any blame with FIFA’s executive committee.

Finally, on Tuesday, he announced his resignation, to the relief of anybody who loves soccer—and to the chagrin of tabloids worldwide. While some headline-writers went with the sedate “A Great Day For Football,” The Sun couldn’t resist. “Blatter on a Platter,” it proclaimed on the front page.

Back in 2002, the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and the International Olympic Committee also started out by denying allegations and pointing fingers at others. What likely saved the 2002 Winter Games (and allowed Juan Antonio Samaranch to continue his 21-year tenure as head of the IOC) was that Salt Lake reached out to Mitt Romney, who had just completed an impressive turnaround at Bain Consulting.

Turning a looming disaster into one of the most successful Winter Games ever (with a $40 million surplus), Romney’s efforts allowed Samaranch to avoid resigning, to keep his personal fiefdom—and to sidestep responsibility. Romney reorganized the Salt Lake committee; he cleaned up the balance sheet; and he got sponsors on board. Samaranch expelled 10 IOC members and sanctioned another 10. He even was named IOC honorary president for life. All was forgiven.

Blatter undoubtedly hoped to follow the Samaranch script. Sadly, it would have been an M.O. perfected by politicians and CEOs—leaders who’ve learned to release bad news before weekends or holidays (the better for the story to be buried in the media); to obfuscate the obvious; to evade questions from the press; and to change the subject to the alleged mistakes of critics. In time, those dodging accountability call allegations old news. Spin works all too often.

The result is public trust lost and cynicism on steroids. Can FIFA be an exception in the way the 2002 Olympics were? I doubt Romney’s looking for a gig these days. But if FIFA wants to restore the faith of fans and sponsors in a sport beloved around the world, FIFA needs to find a paragon of integrity to lead it. A full investigation, a transparent accounting, and unambiguous consequences for the corrupt—these are what soccer’s governing body needs. What saved Salt Lake can save FIFA.

By Joel Peterson