The global geopolitics afoot in campaigns to succeed FIFA President Sepp Blatter warrant greater attention of the entire American foreign policy and national security apparatus, as well as national media and business communities.
The U.S. Department of Justice precipitated regime change at the top of FIFA — world soccer's "central command" — in the largest ongoing international sports governing body scandal, pursuing indictments against FIFA's corrupt leadership of the sport.
But this month's election is about more than reconstruction or reform. Policymakers and political leaders would be foolish to ignore global implications, both economic and political.
The rest of the world does view not sports as we do. Americans believe in separation of sports and political governance: In the U.S., noninterference is codified in laws that set up independent national governing bodies for various amateur sports while incorporating professional leagues. Our superstars might lobby Capitol Hill on pet causes or be pressed into service as "goodwill ambassadors," but only doping scandals or revisiting Major League Baseball's antitrust exemption prompts Congress to call formal hearings. Meanwhile, ESPN spent hours covering baseball's Hall of Fame balloting as if it were Election Day — or even the NFL draft!
Yet FIFA's election has implications for sports, business and global political influence, not just because the next FIFA president might revisit the controversial awarding of World Cups to Russia and Qatar and reopen the bidding process. (Russia was also recently banned from the track-and-field athletics federation, the International Association of Athletics Federations, for widespread doping, and Russian organized crime has been implicated in just-revealed match-fixing in tennis.)
Make no mistake: Soccer (association football) is big business around the world, with billions in top-tier corporate sponsorship. Deep-pocketed ownership mirrors the centers of political gravity, national wealth and ruling families in notable, sometimes notorious regimes around the globe. Their citizens passionately follow FIFA politics, not just on sports pages.
Outside the U.S., FIFA delegates and national soccer association leaders, like their Olympic Committee counterparts, are closely tied to national governments: often blood relatives or in-laws of royal families or potentates (elected or unelected). Rarely a meritocracy, being handpicked to run a national sports program is a spoil of power, an extension of that influence and an invitation to play politics "by other means."
Where democracy itself is questionable — and even where it thrives — the selection of leaders is less "secret ballot" and more backroom deal. Still, FIFA elections may be closer to traditional democracy than those from certain countries ever experience in their homelands.
Temptation to corruption is not just about buying or selling votes, or the media rights that come with selection of the next World Cup host nations. Prestige and influence on the world stage come to small countries whose seat at the U.N. or World Trade Organization is not nearly as influential and does not come with billions of dollars in title sponsors named Visa or Coca-Cola or Gazprom. Sony was first of five who walked away from longstanding FIFA partner status before the latest scandal erupted. Economics sank Blatter's cronies as much as prosecution.
U.S. Soccer Federation President and FIFA Executive Committee member Sunil Gulati gets it. He was first to state publicly before the last FIFA election that the U.S. would not vote to reelect Blatter, a watershed move for a secret ballot given previous threats of retribution to anyone challenging the hierarchy. Blatter's resignation days after the election betrays the quiet words others surely told him leading up to the vote: We cannot support your declared opponent, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, but we will vote for you only if you step down immediately so we can find another candidate.
Now another Middle Eastern royal, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain, is the odds-on favorite in a field of five. Outsiders muse at the geographic proximity, but the similarity to Prince Ali ends there. Ali is a soccer playboy noted for his friendship with superstar bad-boy Diego Maradona. Salman chairs the Asian Confederation, so has won election already from the second-largest voting bloc of soccer-playing nations, with strong ties to the African bloc. If the world wants to distance itself from European and Latin American/Caribbean strongholds on FIFA — which led to the current state of affairs — it will look to Asia, whence increasing share of team ownership and league sponsorship money now flows. The vote could be close.
Americans want assurances that FIFA will be clean in the future. Will Russia insist on protecting its prior bid and sponsorship arrangements in exchange for its vote and those within its sphere of influence? Will Qatar ask for a pass on accusations of human rights violations? Will Europeans derail both, hoping that reopening the bidding process favors recent hosts whose physical and human infrastructure remains in place, like Germany (2006), France (1998) or England (2012 Olympics)?
Will delegates seek non-football considerations impacting world affairs like drilling rights, sea lanes or carbon credits? Our leaders are naive to think that the politics of FIFA is constrained to sport.
Gulati is not a government official, but he stood for election within U.S. Soccer Federation several times and among his regional peers (Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, or CONCACAF) for placement on FIFA's executive committee. He understands the political nuances and what is good for "the beautiful game," as demonstrated by the fact that soccer has grown since U.S. hosted the World Cup in 1994 and Women's World Cups in 1999 and 2003, the latter a late-breaking "steal" when China's SARS epidemic vacated its hosting.
The State Department traditionally staffs a Sports Diplomacy office, which sends high-profile athletes on public engagements abroad and coordinates visits of foreign teams for hosted competitions. The current scandals and leadership elections at FIFA deserve elevated attention from the business and foreign affairs communities more broadly — and closer monitoring by all concerned — as sport, politics, and business converge.
Castro was a State Department official under President George W. Bush. He also served in a volunteer capacity for the host committees of FIFA World Cup USA 1994 and Women's World Cup 2003 and was part of the U.S. Soccer Federation's National Referee Development Program for two decades. He currently resides abroad, advising companies on new market development and public affairs strategies.