FIFA is playing host to a conference on ethics.
Think about that for a second: The global sports organization most synonymous with corruption and obfuscation is holding a forum focused on morality and openness.
"I thought there was a typo," said Jeffrey Thinnes, an expert in corporate communications, ethics and compliance. "Are you serious?"
Apparently they are. The Belgium-based World Forum for Ethics in Business (WFEB) is throwing its weight behind the one-day event, the World Summit on Ethics in Sports, to be held Friday at FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland.
It still sounds like a joke awaiting a punch line. Especially when you consider the conference is scheduled to be opened by FIFA President Sepp Blatter, whose 16 scandal-ridden years in charge of world soccer's governing body have been marked by an unprecedented number of corruption charges.
And FIFA's abrupt turn toward legitimacy — which may still be just a feint — didn't exactly get off to a great start: Both FIFA and the WFEB pointed to each other when asked about to explain the soccer body's role in the summit.
"We have offered the home of FIFA in Zurich as a venue to host this event, but the organizer is The World Forum for Ethics and Business. Therefore we kindly direct you to their website for further details," Cilla Duncan of FIFA's media department wrote in an email.
When contacted with the same question Cirstin Ehlers, spokesperson for WFEB, directed questions back to FIFA.
What is known is that in addition to Blatter at least four other FIFA executives will speak at the summit, among them Michael Garcia, a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who earlier this month completed an investigation into the bidding process that awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
The detailed report — which FIFA can release or just sweep under the carpet — is said to be especially damning regarding bribery around the selection process and it landed on Blatter's desk just months after an independent governance committee "strongly advised" FIFA to enact several fundamental reforms to regain credibility.
Term limits was one of the recommendations and Blatter, 78, gave his response to that suggestion last week, saying he will seek a fifth term as FIFA president next spring. As for the group's other meek attempts at reform, they have largely been exposed as self-serving or ineffective.
Last June, Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado, examined FIFA's reform efforts based on recommendations from three reports — two commissioned by FIFA and a third from the independent governance group Transparency International. Of the 59 recommendations called for in the three reports, Pielke said FIFA implemented only seven and partially implemented 10, ignoring the other 42.
"It's very clear that some of their key recommendations for improved governance and transparency have been rejected," said Thinnes, who has advised Fortune 500 companies on ethics, compliance and anti-corruption policies.
Real reform, Thinnes says, won't happen until FIFA "stakeholders" — the sponsors and athletes — demand change.
FIFA earned $4.5 billion from this summer's World Cup in Brazil and that number will only go up because broadcasting and sponsorship deals for the 2018 tournament in Russia have increased. That gives the companies writing those checks enormous power and those backers are both weary and wary of FIFA's promises of reform.
Just before the start of the Brazil tournament, the Sunday Times of London published stories detailing bribes surrounding Qatar's 2022 World Cup bid. Major sponsors including Visa, Sony and Coca-Cola reacted quickly, warning their continued support would hinge on the charges being "investigated appropriately."
"When you start putting those numbers together and think of the collective clout that companies like Adidas and McDonald's could have in forcing change if they would only set up their own committee and set their own demands for continued sponsorship in this closely guarded, not transparent organization, they could really have an impact on change," Thinnes said.
Maybe. The problem is, if Adidas backed out, Nike and Puma would gladly take its place. So the only one who can really change FIFA is FIFA itself — a message even some FIFA executives now accept.
"I don't think FIFA has done a great job communicating its message over the years and its image and public perception is affecting the game," CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb, a FIFA vice president, said at last week's Soccerex Global Conference in Manchester, England. "… From an ethics and moral standpoint we have got an awful lot of work to do to rebuild trust."
Reformers are no doubt hoping the presence of Webb, from the Cayman Islands, and Sunil Gulati, president of U.S Soccer, on FIFA's executive committee could spark change. Blatter, however, could try to co-opt Webb and Gulati by offering the U.S. the 2026 World Cup and a home match that year on July 4, the United States' 250th birthday, provided they keep Nike, McDonald's and Visa in line.
Hardly sounds ethical, but then that's the way FIFA does business. The group has had only two presidents since 1974 — Brazilian Joao Havelange, whose reign from 1974-1998 was also marred by scandal — and the Swiss-born Blatter, Havelange's former secretary general. During that same period the International Olympic Committee has had four presidents and Major League Baseball has had five commissioners.
And without sweeping top-down change throughout FIFA, that lack of openness and transparency combined with the taint of scandal — what Blatter considers "business as usual" — is likely to continue no matter how many reports the group commissions, no matter how many policies it adopts and no matter how ethics conferences it takes part in.
"You don't measure [that]. You measure what people actually think and how people act inside the organization," Thinnes said. "That's what's missing with FIFA.
"Nobody is there to actually change the culture."
There may be hope, though. One workshop at FIFA's ethics summit is entitled "Anti-Corruption: The Way Forward."