Fifa’s big year: what does 2018 have in store for soccer’s embattled rulers?

With another edition of its flagship tournament, the World Cup, just six months away, the challenges ahead for Fifa are as wide-ranging as at any time in the organisation’s 113-year history. Where does the scandal-hit body stand in 2018?

Fifa’s big year: what does 2018 have in store for soccer’s embattled rulers?

Few monikers in sport conjure so many negative connotations as that of Fifa, the much-maligned and often derided governing body of world soccer. Over the course of a generation or more, the Swiss-based organisation has come to exemplify all that is perceived to be wrong with the big-money world of mainstream sport at the highest levels.

With another edition of its flagship tournament, the World Cup, just six months away, the challenges ahead for Fifa are as wide-ranging as at any time in the organisation’s 113-year history. Its reputation, it is fair to say, has hit rock-bottom, ensuring that much needs to be done to restore its credibility. But where does the scandal-hit body stand in 2018?

A defining year for Infantino

2018 is shaping up to be a pivotal year in the presidency of Gianni Infantino, the former Uefa secretary general who ascended to soccer’s highest office in February 2016 in the aftermath of Sepp Blatter’s catastrophic downfall.

Having pitched himself as a reformist - the personable polyglot whose administrative credentials and transparent approach were required to overhaul Fifa’s battered brand - the 47-year-old has spent much of his two-year tenure fighting the many fires left smouldering by his disgraced predecessor and a succession of rotten regimes.

There have been personal successes along the way, however. In January of last year, for example, Infantino achieved one of his top campaign promises when he pushed through a contentious proposal to expand the World Cup, securing a vote that would see the tournament swell from 32 to 48 nations from 2026 onwards.

That decision, coupled with extensive politicking in places like Africa and the Americas and his campaign promise to triple financial handouts for development programmes in each of Fifa's 211 member nations, has helped strengthen Infantino’s relationships with senior officials in key voting territories, enabling him to curry the kind of favour among national associations so expertly cultivated by Blatter.

Yet, for the vast majority of observers, Infantino’s shortcomings have greatly outweighed the positives when it comes to evaluating his presidency so far.

If reforming Fifa was, on reflection, always going to be an uphill battle, Infantino has quickly experienced what it means to make that climb in the firing line. Forced to overcome an ethics investigation of his own - an investigation that centred on his personal expenses, and from which, it should be said, he was eventually cleared - he has often been viewed with the same suspicion that had long blighted Fifa’s old guard.

Much of that has to be put down to Infantino’s own actions. Any hopes he had of restoring trust and credibility to the office of the Fifa president were hardly helped when pictures emerged, during the Rio 2016 Olympics, of him posing alongside Marco Polo Del Nero, the head of Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) who had been among those indicted by US authorities on corruption charges a year earlier.

Russia 2018 will be the first Fifa World Cup held during the presidency of Gianni Infantino.

Infantino’s chummy relationships with other tarnished characters like Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s deputy prime minister who has been banned from all future Olympic Games for his alleged part in his country’s state-sponsored doping programme, have done little to further a message of reform. Aside from those PR disasters, though, it is Infantino’s heavy-handed reaction to being formally investigated that has come to haunt him most.

In May, at Fifa’s congress in Bahrain, he orchestrated the sudden removal of Cornel Borbély, the chair of Fifa’s ethics committee’s investigatory chamber, as well as Hans-Joachim Eckert, the chair of the ethics committee’s adjudicatory chamber, and Miguel Maduro, the governance committee chair. Around the time the committee chairmen were removed, reports said Infantino was under investigation for alleged ethics breaches, including wrongful declaration of his campaign spending and, aided by Fifa general secretary Fatma Samoura, improperly seeking to influence the election of his favoured candidate for president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), Ahmad Ahmad.

Infantino has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, denouncing the reports as “fake news” and “Fifa bashing”. Yet at a time when public faith in Fifa’s ability to govern the game is at an all-time low, few are convinced that Infantino - or anyone else with a long history of operating inside the Fifa ‘family’, for that matter - is the right person to truly reform the governance and business practices so culturally ingrained in world soccer.

Several high-profile figures have lent further weight to that view in recent weeks. Writing in The Guardian last month, the ousted Maduro and two other former members of the new governance committee enlisted to help clean up Fifa outlined the challenges they faced in attempting to change the body’s institutional culture and the ‘huge structural conflict of interest’ at its heart. ‘Power in Fifa is a political cartel,’ they wrote. ‘This is why the leadership of football survived for so long despite the many scandals surrounding it.’ 

For Infantino, then, 2018 may or may not prove decisive, but he is certainly not fireproof. With an election campaign on the horizon in 2019, a good year is a must.

The financial picture

For all Infantino's talk of reform, transparency and belt-tightening, there remain pressing questions surrounding the manner in which Fifa spends the more than US$5 billion in revenues it generates each four-year World Cup cycle.

A recent report by the New York Times’ Tariq Panja revealed that Fifa paid the 37 members of its ruling council, which replaced its previous 25-person executive committee as part of a package of reforms, a total of nearly US$10 million last year. That sum reportedly includes some US$250,000 each in salaries, plus tens of thousands of dollars more in travel expenses.

That lavish level of compensation remains difficult to justify for a body that is classified as a non-profit, and far exceeds payments for those performing non-executive roles at many similarly sized for-profit companies. It also appears to contradict Infantino’s campaign pledge to rein in the organisation's spending, even if some of the excessive perks and extravagant bonuses enjoyed by Fifa regimes of old have been curtailed since he took office.

After announcing a US$369 million loss for 2016, Fifa projected a US$489 million deficit last year, largely owing to a marked drop in sponsorship revenue and spiralling legal fees, both of which were brought about by a series of indictments unsealed by US federal law enforcement in 2015. Fifa is due to release its next financial statement, which will contain details of this year’s salaries, including that of Infantino, in March.

The Russia problem

If Fifa already had its work cut out to convince the world of the merits of staging the World Cup in Russia, a country whose name has long been synonymous with cheating in elite sport, the dramatic events of 2017 did little to help its cause.

Sensational revelations of state-sponsored doping in Russia - revelations that were first detailed in Richard McLaren’s damning report for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in 2016 - implicated more than 1,000 Russian athletes across 30 sports, including soccer players who represented the country at the 2014 World Cup. Late last year, prolonged investigations into those claims came to an explosive head when the International Olympic Committee (IOC), presented with overwhelming evidence of widespread Russian doping, finally took action, banning the country from the upcoming PyeongChang 2018 Winter Games and imposing sanctions on some of Russia’s top sporting officials.

In the wake of the IOC’s decision, the spotlight has since turned on Fifa, which has to date been walking something of a political tightrope having found itself caught between dealing with the fallout of the doping scandal and avoiding any animosity with the hosts of its showpiece tournament. Now the onus is on Fifa to take meaningful action of its own, even if that may ultimately involve sanctioning the stewards of its next World Cup.

That, in itself, has put Fifa in a bind, but Mutko’s reluctant resignation last month from his position as head of Russian soccer’s governing body, albeit temporarily, has alleviated some of the pressure. Under mounting international scrutiny in light of his lifetime Olympics ban, the ever-defiant Mutko has also relinquished his other role as chairman of the Russia 2018 local organising committee to Alexey Sorokin, the committee’s chief executive and a Fifa Council member.

But, with just six months to go until kick-off, the shadow of Russia’s former sports minister continues to loom large over this summer’s tournament. Despite mounting speculation that Mutko could still face an ethics probe, the Russia 2018 organising committee has confirmed that he will, in his current capacity of deputy prime minister, ‘continue to oversee the preparations of the regions as well as coordinate the construction of the necessary infrastructure’.

Mutko (left) and Infantino oversaw December's Russia 2018 World Cup draw ceremony, before the Russian's resignation later in the month.

Mutko’s continued involvement has ensured that the spectre of the Russian doping scandal is not going away for Fifa. Indeed, for some senior figures within the anti-doping movement - including Sir Craig Reedie, the WADA president - Fifa’s failure to proactively pursue an investigation into Russia’s violations as a matter of priority is inexcusable. For them, the body’s apparent reluctance to seek out evidence relating to possible transgressions by Russian soccer players - including that which might be provided by the star whistleblower, Grigory Rodchenkov, who remains in hiding in the US - raises questions over its motives.

Further darkening the cloud of suspicion, Joseph Weiler, a law professor who resigned from his post on Fifa's governance committee in May, filed an ethics complaint in September in which he claimed that Maduro, Fifa’s ousted governance committee chairman, was investigating Mutko prior to his removal, only to have his investigations blocked by Infantino and other senior officials. 

Fifa, for its part, has said it will “impose the appropriate sanction” on any athlete found to have violated any anti-doping rules, provided concrete evidence is obtained in the correct manner. With time increasingly of the essence ahead of the start of Russia 2018, it has also requested that samples pertaining to Russian soccer players are given priority by the Lausanne laboratory tasked with analysing them.

The commercial outlook

One of the most obvious casualties of Russian notoriety and Fifa’s noxious brand has been the under-performing World Cup commercial programme, which has lurched from one month to the next with little progress having perceivably been made.

Not surprisingly, Fifa has had trouble finding companies willing to be a partner. Of the 20 ‘regional supporter’ slots - the lowest designation of three categories of sponsorship - available for the tournament, only one has been filled, with Russia's Alfa Bank signing up back in July 2016. Reports last year suggested that a sluggish economy and disappointment with the performance of Sochi 2014 Olympic sponsorships had kept domestic companies away. Still, Fifa was able to bring on board Mengniu Group, a Chinese dairy products manufacturer, as a second-tier official sponsor last month, while a deal with Sunseeker International, the luxury yacht company owned by existing Fifa partner Dalian Wana, was confirmed this week.

With the countdown clock ticking, drumming up support for the World Cup within the host nation is perhaps Fifa’s most pressing concern. In December, the body did manage to strike a deal with a consortium of Russian TV networks, who finally agreed to air the tournament having reportedly balked at Fifa’s reported US$100 million asking price for more than a year. 

That deal was undoubtedly a weight lifted for Fifa. While the World Cup may be the most-watched event on the planet, a national rights agreement is usually in place far in advance of the tournament, helping to generate excitement in the host country well before the first whistle is blown - Brazilian broadcaster Globo, for example, secured coverage a full eight years before the 2014 edition.    

More generally, though, Fifa’s current commercial malaise extends far beyond the struggles seen at Russia 2018. As a sponsorship proposition, Fifa properties remain a tough sell - and not simply because partnering with the body remains costly.

The last time Fifa signed a new partner based in either Europe or the United States was back in 2011, a one-World Cup deal with Johnson & Johnson. New sponsorship agreements signed last year with the likes of Hisense, Qatar Airways and Vivo have, however, softened the blow delivered by the 2015 corruption scandal that spooked many companies - including long-time Fifa partners such as Visa, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Anheuser-Busch InBev, who all declined to renew their most recent contracts.

But given that Fifa relies on World Cup commercial deals for about 85 per cent of its income, the extent to which the body can restore faith among the corporate community - particularly outside Asia - will ultimately determine whether it can truly rebound from the financial hit it has taken, both directly and indirectly, as a result of its recent travails.

The Fifa-gate fallout

The sprawling indictments handed down to more than 40 high-ranking officials and marketing executives by US federal authorities in May of 2015 sent shockwaves across world soccer. The investigation centred on schemes in the Americas spanning 24 years and involving at least US$150 million in bribes, and last year saw the first trial in what has come to be known as the 'Fifa-gate' scandal.

In December Brazil’s Jose Maria Marin (left) and the Paraguayan Juan Angel Napout, two men who were once among South American soccer's most powerful figures, were both found guilty of various counts of corruption in a federal court in Brooklyn. A third defendant, Manuel Burga, the former head of the Peruvian soccer association, was later cleared by the same jury, becoming the first person to be acquitted of charges brought by the US investigation.

Coming after nearly two-dozen guilty pleas entered by other indicted officials, the six-week trial in Brooklyn laid bare Fifa’s culture of bribes and kickbacks, exposing sophisticated schemes designed to funnel money tied to broadcasting and sponsorship contracts between international bank accounts held by sham companies and individuals. But, far from drawing a line under years of malfeasance within Fifa, it also raised important questions over the dealings of several figures and companies still involved in the global game.

Witness testimonies pointed the finger, for example, at the organisers of the Qatar 2022 World Cup, who have been repeatedly accused of buying votes or seeking to build influence improperly since controversially winning the right to stage the tournament in late 2010. Alejandro Burzaco, an Argentinian marketing executive turned star witness for the prosecution, testified that the Qataris offered bribes to Fifa voters, including the late Julio Grondona of Argentina and Ricardo Teixeira of Brazil, in return for their support for Qatar’s bid. Burzaco’s claims were later backed up by another witness, the Colombian Luis Bedoya, a former member of the Fifa Council who was banned for life in 2016.

While none of the testimonies directly threaten Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, the details laid out within them have only reignited longstanding suspicions surrounding the Qataris. It is not yet clear whether US authorities will investigate the most recent allegations but shortly before last year’s trial Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the Qatari head of the BeIN Media Group and chairman of French soccer giants Paris Saint-Germain, was quizzed by Swiss authorities. He was suspected of arranging bribes for Jérôme Valcke, Fifa’s former secretary general, in return for the broadcast rights to the 2026 and 2030 World Cups.

A further concern for Fifa will be the fact that three of its media partners - Fox Sports in Latin America, Brazil’s Globo, and Televisa of Mexico - were all implicated in illicit schemes during the Brooklyn trial. According to Burzaco’s testimony, all three broadcasters paid bribes to Grondona to secure World Cup rights, as did the Traffic Sports and Full Play agencies and Burzaco’s own Torneos y Competencias (TyC). Fox and Globo have both since denied wrongdoing, with the former describing Burzaco’s claims as “emphatically false”.

Nevertheless, the new allegations to emerge during the trial have become a focal point, dragging Fifa's name through the mud once again and serving as a reminder that many senior past and present Fifa officials continue to evade justice.

Among those for whom arrest warrants have been issued are the Brazilian Teixeira, whose prodigious corruption dates back to the early Blatter years, and Jack Warner, the ever-slippery former president of Concacaf, Fifa’s confederation for North and Central America and the Caribbean, who continues to fight extradition in Trinidad and Tobago.

Then there is the alarming case of Marco Polo Del Nero (right), who continues to serve as Brazil’s top soccer official despite receiving a 90-day ban from all soccer activities last month. Like Teixeira, Del Nero remains holed up in his native country, safe in the knowledge that Brazil has no extradition treaty with the United States.

Aside from those names, several indicted figures are set to finally receive sentences in the coming months. Jeffrey Webb, Warner's permanent replacement at Concacaf, entered a guilty plea in November of 2015, and has been selling off his ill-gotten property assets as part of a forfeiture agreement with US authorities, ahead of a sentence hearing that was recently postponed until March, nearly three years after his May 2015 arrest in Switzerland. Alfredo Hawit, who took interim control of Concacaf between the tenures of Warner and Webb, has also been arrested and is awaiting sentencing in March.

Elsewhere Eugenio Figueredo, the former head of Conmebol, was released from a Uruguayan prison last month having been arrested along with Webb and other Fifa officials at Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel in May of 2015. Initially put under house arrest in 2016 because of his age and poor health, the 85-year-old has since pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering. Meanwhile another former president of Conmebol, Nicolás Leoz, is fighting extradition to the US from his native Paraguay. The 89-year-old, who ruled Conmebol from 1986 to 2013, has long been the poster boy for Fifa corruption, often bragging to associates of his untouchable status while commanding ever greater bribe payments over the course of many years.

Throughout the Fifa-gate scandal, Fifa has persistently played the victim, claiming to have been a casualty of the corrupt dealings of a few of its members, rather than complicit in them. It has forked out tens of millions of dollars in a bid to persuade prosecutors that that is the case, despite having been labelled by US authorities as the criminal enterprise. In March of 2016, the body filed a restitution claim in which it sought US$38.2 million in compensation for legal fees and reputational damage.

While playing the victim may prove effective in court, Fifa’s tactics have done little to overturn its public image crisis. Senior officials, including Blatter, have repeatedly sought to distance themselves from the malpractice by pointing the finger at the actions of individuals in the Americas, yet the perception remains that the scale of the corruption within Fifa extends worldwide. 

Indeed, with separate yet related investigations into World Cup vote-buying and other forms of financial corruption ongoing in countries on both sides of the Atlantic, the question for many is who will be next.

The race for the 2026 World Cup

Amid the prevailing climate of suspicion and uncertainty, Fifa members are due to vote on whether to select a host for the 2026 World Cup at their 68th Congress in Moscow on 13th June, the day before Russia and Saudi Arabia contest the opening match of this year’s tournament.

As it stands, a three-way North American proposal put forth by the United States, Canada and Mexico is the favourite to land hosting rights for the expanded 48-team event, with the only other bidder, Morocco, widely deemed to have only a slim chance of being awarded the tournament on account of its inferior stadiums and infrastructure, and less appealing corporate profile.

Yet, as history has shown, Fifa works in mysterious ways. There are no guarantees that the body’s voting members will ultimately reward a country whose federal authorities have indicted many of its top officials, even if a World Cup primarily staged in the US would likely be a huge financial and sporting success. 

In any case, while the vote on 2026 is slated for June, Fifa could yet postpone its decision with a view to enticing other bidders to enter the running. Should that happen, the race for 2026 would be opened up to countries from all six of Fifa’s regional confederations, with a final decision slated for the 70th Fifa Congress in 2020.

Whatever comes to pass, Fifa has vowed to publish all votes throughout the process as part of a new set of bidding guidelines announced in November.