The advent of the FIFA World Cup has coincided with allegations that FIFA is incapable of running the World Cup. European members have turned on Secretary-General Sepp Blatter, who tried to joke his way out of controversy by saying, "We shall wonder if one day our game is played on another planet…. Then we will have not only a World Cup, we will have interplanetary competitions." The Sunday Times of London has published documents suggesting that bribes delivered the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, over bids from the United States, Australia, Japan, and South Korea. And the people of Brazil have protested that FIFA has driven their country to spend its education budget on luxury perks and white elephant stadiums.
But there’s one thing missing from these arguments: what a reformed FIFA ought to look like.
Fortunately, this is a problem that international politics has dealt with. The global system is governed by an array of institutions that can act as blueprints for a new FIFA, changed from the current 25-member Executive Committee that was used to choose Russia for 2018 and Qatar for 2022.
The following is a completely arbitrary and speculative list transposing FIFA’s mission and members onto existing institutions. It assumes that the new FIFA will have two goals—avoiding corruption and presenting the “best” World Cup—and that its voting members are broadly self-interested rational actors.
Everyone dives in: Congressional FIFA
Who votes? The 209 national soccer bodies all have one vote in FIFA’s Congress, the existing supreme legislative body. This will be the method for the 2026 decision.
Is it corruptible? Is it ever! There are 32 countries in Brazil for the games. That leaves 85 percent of the Congress out of the global spotlight. Most of them are small, poorly funded, and in the developing world. Some of the bribes from Qatar’s ExCo member Mohammed bin Hammam were allegedly to national bodies for as little as $50,000 for some new fields. When Afghanistan has as much voting weight as Germany, something could go wrong.
Could it choose the best location? It could possibly be worse than the previous system.
Who would have won 2022? Qatar.
Permanent vetoes: United Nations
Who votes? Like the U.N., there is a Security Council of the five most powerful soccer nations (England, Germany, Brazil, Argentina, and one of Spain, Italy, or France) with permanent vetoes. Ten others are selected on a rotating basis.
Is it corruptible? Much less likely. Bribes won’t matter unless you can get the relatively rich English and German members on your side, who may be prosecuted domestically if exposed.
Could it choose the best location? If you think one of the veto-wielders is the best candidate. The permanent members would probably set up a rotation among them for the tournament, blocking any other members. If there were unrest from the other countries, a compromise candidate like Mexico could be chosen by them and presented as a fait accompli.
Who would have won 2022? If the real-world candidates somehow snuck onto a shortlist, then the United States. It would have been the best for television coverage for both continents.
Weighted pass: International Monetary Fund
Who votes? National votes adjusted to account for importance in world soccer. This could be calculated by donations to a common FIFA fund, a measurement of fandom like television ratings, or some other metrics that, like the IMF, privilege rich countries with big populations.
Is it corruptible? More so than the U.N. scheme. A closely divided race could be swayed by select susceptible countries.
Could it choose the best location? If you're a sponsor of the World Cup. The largest markets and those with disposable income will have extra power and cater to their populations. That will ensure lucrative broadcasts but may not result in a fun tournament for those attending it.
Who would have won 2022? Whatever the metric, Brazil’s 200 million soccer mad citizens, would have made it a key vote. For time-zone reasons, they could have chosen the United States. For seasonal choices, Australia.
Tribunal Passion: World Trade Organization
Who votes? Technocratic judges, as sheltered as possible from the political process.
Is it corruptible? No. The WTO is usually considered above reproach.
Could it choose the best location? If all you care about is who produces the most convincing bid and earns the most satisfactory report from FIFA’s technical assessment. But providing oversight will be difficult and possibly important emotive arguments will fall flat.
Who would have won 2022? Australia. They received an excellent technical report and have never hosted the World Cup.
Song and Dance: Eurovision
Who votes? Public votes by phone and an executive committee jointly decide. You cannot vote for your own country.
Is it corruptible? Probably. The ExCo could be bribed. Phone votes could be hacked and cast by robocalls.
Could it choose the best location? Perhaps. But it’s used for Eurovision and those songs are awful.
Who would have won 2022? Japan or South Korea. Qatar’s ExCo bribes would have been limited in their impact. The biggest U.S. asset (its population) would have been little help. For time-zone reasons, soccer-mad East Asia could have given the cup to their own region. Chinese antipathy could have swung it to Australia, though.
And Now, a Serious Proposal
There would be some shifts in World Cup voting if FIFA were designed differently, and Qatar likely would miss out. However, the real problem is not one of institutional reform, but of power. FIFA can boot national teams out of their most important tournament. It can invalidate results. It can dangle millions in revenue in front of administrators and popular acclaim in front of politicians. The problem is not that Sepp Blatter or the ExCo is corrupt. It is that they are unchecked.
A successfully reformed FIFA would look less like the international institution that it currently is and more like the NFL, where administrators can be prosecuted under U.S. law, labor disputes go to a federal mediator, and Congress can subpoena witnesses. If FIFA submitted itself more fully to Swiss law, or if there were more transparency allowing pressure on the national representatives from their domestic constituents, improvements would likely occur.
The central dilemma of FIFA is the central dilemma of the international system: effective governance that includes every country in the world is really hard.