THE BLOG
07/30/2015 11:08 am ET Updated Jul 30, 2016

FIFA: The Geo-Politics of the Global Game

Dennis Grombkowski via Getty Images

As football legend Michel Platini and others launch bids for the presidency of international football's governing body, the greatest existential crisis in FIFA's 111-year history is far from over. Leading sponsors, such as Visa, are leading the charge for comprehensive reform and greater transparency. The full legal storm has yet to be unleashed as FIFA's first official was recently extradited to the United States. The ensuing spillover into the geopolitics of the global game is somewhat inevitable, the key question remains to what extent.

Though the United Nations has 193 member states, FIFA has 209, because of its looser standards for nation status. Considering the worldwide influence of football and the passion it incites, the geopolitical stakes are enormously high. An impending diplomatic tsunami awaits should U.S., Swiss or other authorities find illegality in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids and then threaten to strip the tournament rights from the selected host nations, Russia and Qatar respectively.

Unsurprisingly, Russia has accused Washington of judicial overreach. Russian President Vladimir Putin claims current FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, is a victim who deserves a Nobel Prize. On the other hand, Qatar accuses critics of anti-Arab prejudice and racism. Financial stakes are also high. Host nations have already spent and committed millions to building stadiums and support infrastructure.

The U.S. indictments against FIFA, and expanding international investigations, focus on serious criminal wrongdoing. A large bloc of nations, however, views it through the prism of politicization, victimization and conspiracy theories. The current investigations, according to this narrative, are another American attempt to use its legal system to interfere in the affairs of other nations in pursuit of its own interests. It is also viewed as a Western power-grab for FIFA, with Westerners trying to regain control of a formerly Euro-centric organization that has gone global.

Blatter, in this argument, is the visionary who made this possible. To question him is "blasphemy," according to the head of football of the Guinea-Bissau, one of Africa's poorest countries. For Blatter's supporters, his largesse to developing nations matters more than any criminal allegations. As they see it, he transformed FIFA into a "Robin Hood," who took from the rich nations and gave to the poor.

The countering view of most Western countries, and much of the developed world, is that FIFA under Blatter has become a bastion of cronyism and political patronage. The dominant culture of impunity and secrecy, its lack of transparency and accountability must end. The current legal avalanche results from years of unobstructed wrongdoings.

This dichotomy goes beyond differing opinions about international institutions such as FIFA. It extends to the diametrically opposing viewpoints in a broader North-South and East-West divide. The North-West axis of the developed world, including North America, Europe and Japan, largely emphasizes a rules-based international system. It presses for global standards of transparency and accountability in both private and public sectors. The South-East axis of the developing world view, on the other side, is mainly supported by nations in Africa and Asia and some parts of Latin America. It stresses the primacy of national sovereignty and non-interference in affairs of other states. This often provides the convenient pretext for the autocratically minded to rule at will.

These competing viewpoints strike at the core of globalization. Whether in international organizations or large multinational corporations, they regularly surface and clash in political debate globally. The dichotomy is not static, however, and a greater shift toward transparency is likely. Latin America is on the frontlines of this transformation. Though a majority of the indicted FIFA officials hail from the region, recent developments indicate increasing public intolerance of endemic corruption.

Massive demonstrations and investigations into official wrongdoing have rocked the political establishments. From larger states, such as Brazil and Mexico, to smaller republics, including Guatemala and Honduras, it is no longer business as usual. Pressure is building from the bottom-up. Citizens in Latin America have developed a greater sense of empowerment, expectations and awareness that public graft directly hurts them as stakeholders of their nations' futures and well-being.

This dichotomy was on display during FIFA's presidential election in May 2015 pitting the incumbent Blatter against Prince Ali of Jordan. For the 133 FIFA members that voted for Blatter, the bottom line is that Blatter delivered. His support came primarily from Asia and Africa, FIFA's largest voting bloc. In the build-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, FIFA netted approximately $5.7 billion. Vast amounts were distributed directly to the heads of national football confederations responsible for allocating funds in their countries. It remains unclear exactly where the money went due to lack of standards of accountability. The credibility of FIFA and the sport it represents will be largely determined by the unfolding international legal process.

The beauty of the "beautiful game" -- and what makes it the people's game globally -- is that football is an equal-opportunity sport, accessible to all regardless of size, creed, class or skin-color. Football's giants, such as Pele and Maradona, regularly came from under-privileged backgrounds before reaching the greatest heights. One young asthmatic child named Lionel Messi defied the odds to become the greatest player of his generation. Football also provides a level playing field for nations to compete regardless of size. A small nation like Uruguay can compete on equal par with giant neighbors such as Brazil and Argentina.

Although geopolitics will always play some role in shaping international football, it should not be allowed to dictate its course. This further underscores the fundamental need for FIFA's transformational reform and restoring the credibility of the global game. After all, football provides hope to millions and a sense of unity among diverse peoples in an increasingly conflict-ridden world.