As news broke on Wednesday that seven top Fifa officials had been arrested by Swiss authorities on corruption charges, a lack of integrity in the highest echelons of football’s top governing body is once again being brought into the light.
There are now two criminal investigations into corruption at Fifa: one under American jurisdiction investigating alleged bribes and kickbacks estimated at more than $150m and one under Swiss jurisdiction investigating the bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. All of this is taking place in the run up to the presidential elections, in which Sepp Blatter is seeking a fifth term. It remains to be seen whether Fifa’s unpopular leader will continue to evade the serious questions many believe he needs to answer.
The ramifications for what is arguably the world’s greatest sporting event are becoming clearer. Yesterday some of Fifa’s top sponsors expressed their concern at the corruption scandal. Using a previously unseen tone of strength, brands such as Visa and Adidas have urged Fifa to act quickly to address the allegations. Statements included Coca-Cola’s warning that “This lengthy controversy has tarnished the mission and ideals of the FIFA World Cup and we have repeatedly expressed our concerns about these serious allegations”.
Although no single sponsor has yet made moves to pull away from Fifa, this scandal at the heart of the sporting world could have serious implications for how companies pursue sponsorship opportunities.
These investigations into Fifa are taking place at a time when public trust in public bodies, such as their governments, their police forces and their churches, has been shaken by numerous scandals. Even the world of celebrity has been affected by historical claims of sexual abuse.
It is in this sceptical and mistrusting environment that companies must seek to associate themselves with something that inspires and transcends the grime and the grit. This is particularly true for companies trying to reach the ‘millenials’ generation, who are notoriously detached from traditional institutions. The most well loved companies for the millenials are those they consider to be ‘good’ and ‘trustworthy’, such as Innocent Smoothies.
Sport used to be one of those idealistic, untainted areas. In the words of Fifa-sponsor, Visa, “the World Cup is one of the few truly global sporting events with the power to unite people from around the world through a common love of football.” Sport used to be distinct from politics, distinct from economics and sometimes, even, distinct from nationalism. Yet there is growing disillusionment with Fifa as its officials seem impervious to the allegations that refuse to die and as Sepp Blatter continues in his role despite the voices calling for him to go. Sport is no longer sacred.
This is the challenge for large multinational companies going forward: can sport continue to be the positive inspiration it has always been? Football is not the only one in trouble. Cycling faced the disturbing truth about Lance Armstrong. Cricket faced the match-fixing revelations in 2000. Sponsors will need to consider whether sport’s reputation can survive the ongoing onslaught, and consequently whether their brands still benefit from association.