Picture: AFP PHOTO/FABRICE COFFRINI
Picture: AFP PHOTO/FABRICE COFFRINI

ZURICH — The spotlight at next week’s Fifa congress will fall on the presidential election but the real key to the future of soccer’s beleaguered governing body is embedded in a document with the unglamorous title, Draft Statutes — Congress 2016.

Drawn up over the past eight months, it suggests changes to stop the scandals that have left the organisation supposed to lead the world’s most popular sport facing its greatest threat for decades.

The most obvious challenge is criminal investigations in the US and Switzerland that have already resulted in the indictment of several dozen soccer officials for corruption, many of them serving or former presidents of national or continental associations.

US prosecutors have continued to call Fifa a victim of corrupt individuals. But if Fifa as an organisation were criminally charged, sponsors and other partners might be reluctant to do business with it.

That is not the only concern, however. In the past month, talk has resurfaced among Europe’s most powerful clubs of a breakaway European Super League, as well as complaints about the amount of time players spend with national teams.

National team competitions depend on a calendar agreed between Fifa and the clubs, which commit to release players to their national teams on certain dates.

If the clubs, which are always eager for more opportunities to play lucrative friendlies abroad, were to pull out, it would throw international football into chaos.

There was similar discontent in the 1990s, when European soccer governing body Uefa became deeply critical of Joao Havelange, the Brazilian president of Fifa at the time.

Uefa produced proposals that included handing more power to the continental confederations, rotating Fifa’s presidency and limiting it mainly to organising the four-yearly World Cup.

Leading clubs including AC Milan and Manchester United then sought to build support for a breakaway league, and top players found themselves in a tug-of-war as clubs refused to release them for internationals.

Old and new challenges

Fifa’s response was to threaten national associations, clubs and players with suspension if they linked up with the proposed league, and Uefa quelled the threat by reorganising its competitions.

But Fifa now faces similar challenges, added to the menace of match-fixing organised by illegal betting syndicates, all while trying to shake off a series of scandals that have led to the banning of Fifa president Sepp Blatter for ethics violations and have cast a shadow over the awarding of at least three World Cup finals. Clearly, it cannot afford to get its reforms wrong.

"If there is not a strong Fifa, football will be grabbed by a lot of people who have no interest in the game and want to use the game for other reasons — political, business or even criminal," said Jerome Champagne, one of five candidates for president.

The reform proposal on the table includes term limits for top officials, to avoid another 18-year presidency such as Blatter’s, as well as disclosure of their salaries.More radically, it would take responsibility for everyday business decisions away from the "political" representatives of national associations. These would sit on a new-look 36-member Fifa Council, which would have at least six female members, and set a broad strategy for world soccer.Day-to-day management would instead pass to a new, professional general secretariat, more akin to a corporate executive board, which, like the Council, would be overseen by a fully independent Audit and Compliance Committee.The proposals also place a greater onus on continental confederations and national associations to police themselves.The 209 national associations, who ultimately hold the power in Fifa through the Congress, and vote for the president, are often seen as a significant part of the problem.Lack of transparencyMost of those indicted in the US committed their alleged crimes while carrying out duties for their national FAs or continental confederations.In November, the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International said the vast majority of FAs were failing to make basic information public, creating a potential breeding ground for corruption.

"The (proposed) statutes do generally address the obligations of confederations to observe the Fifa statutes," Transparency researcher Gareth Sweeney told Reuters, "but they do not adequately explain how Fifa can oversee the confederations’ and the (national associations’ compliance.

"Fifa is effectively answerable to its congress, but how transparent are its member associations? It’s clear that has been inadequate until today."

Mr Sweeney also bemoaned the lack of independent participants on the Fifa Council, whose members will all be elected by the national associations.

"While that opportunity has been lost, the draft statute reforms do cover a lot of required checks and balances that could limit the type of corruption we have seen in the past."

Other critics believe the only way to deal with Fifa is to start all over again.

"We believe they need to dissolve it, and by ‘they’ I mean the Swiss government, they have the power to do so," said Jaimie Fuller, a member of the New Fifa Now campaign group.

He said Fifa’s failure to organise a presidential debate with the five candidates standing on February 26, three of whom have current or former ties to Fifa, showed a lack of will to reform.

"If Fifa was genuine in saying they want to be a reformed organisation, they should have been conducting the presidential debate themselves; instead it’s the same the old system today, and this reinforces the fact they have no desire to reform," he said. "It’s the same men doing deals behind closed doors."

The are the main reforms to be voted on:

Separation of powers

• Fifa’s 24-member executive committee is to be abolished and replaced by a 36-member Fifa council and a general secretariat, separating Fifa’s political functions from day-to-day management.

• The council, elected by member associations, will be responsible for setting Fifa’s overall strategic direction.

• The general secretariat, intended to be staffed by professionals and akin to a corporate executive board, will handle the operational and commercial management of that strategy.

Transparency

• The new president will head the council in a more ambassadorial role, with nonexecutive powers.

• The president’s salary and that of all senior Fifa officers will be made public.

• A Fifa review committee will conduct enhanced integrity checks on all candidates before they are allowed to stand for election to the council.

• The finance, development and governance committees reporting to the council will have a minimum number of independent members from outside soccer.

• All decisions taken by the council, the general secretariat and the finance, development and governance committees must be audited and approved by the fully independent audit and compliance committee.

Term limits

• No senior elected official will be allowed to serve more than three terms of four years. Mr Blatter was president for more than 17 years, while his predecessor, Joao Havelange, was president for 24 years and, once in office, was never opposed in another election.

• The term limits also apply to all members of the Fifa council, the audit and compliance committee and Fifa’s judicial bodies.

Diversity

• The promotion of women will become a primary Fifa objective. Six women will sit on the Fifa council, one from each regional confederation.

• Fifa will reduce the number of its standing committees from 26 to nine, with increased participation of the wider football community.

• A football stakeholders’ committee will be created to represent players, clubs and leagues, which have until now had only limited representation in Fifa.

• A new article will commit Fifa to respect all internationally recognised human rights and strive to promote and protect them.

Reuters