Harvey Pitt, former chairman of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, once warned that “one of the most difficult problems executives face during crises is confronting the fact that a crisis actually exists.”
He might have been talking about the unfolding crisis involving FIFA and the renewed allegations of bribery surrounding the awarding of the 2022 soccer world cup to Qatar.
The decision to award the tournament to Qatar has been controversial since it was first made in 2010. But it moved from controversy to crisis with recent media revelations of a paper trail showing Qatari businessman Mohamed Bin Hamman – a former FIFA Vice President banned for life for corruption – paid about $5million in bribes to secure the vote for his country.
Extraordinarily, no-one is denying the payments were made. But the Qataris say Bin Hamman never had any official or unofficial role supporting the bid and had always acted independently from the Qatar 2022 campaign. That despite the fact that his private office is in the same building as the bid team, and that he facilitated meetings for international football officials with the Qatari Prime Minister and Royal family.
When allegations of corruption surfaced in 2011, FIFA President Sepp Blatter famously responded: “Crisis? What is a crisis? We are not in a crisis, we are only in some difficulties and these difficulties will be solved inside our family.” Sadly, “these difficulties” have not been solved.
With damning fresh evidence appearing in the media, there are calls for the 2022 vote to be taken again, and now five of FIFA’s six core sponsors have called for a proper investigation. Yet in the face of such pressure, FIFA seems determined to carry on as if nothing has happened. Indeed, 78-year-old Blatter completely ignored the scandal in his speech to the FIFA Annual Congress last week.
Moreover Blatter has put the latest allegations down to “discrimination and racism” among the world governing body’s critics, provoking a storm of outrage. But amidst all the finger pointing and conspiracy theories, perhaps the most damning statement came from within FIFA itself. The chairman of the world body’s audit and compliance committee, Domenico Scala, admitted the biggest risk to their integrity was the 25 members of its executive committee. “The highest single risk at FIFA, he said, “is the executive committee and its members.” Very few commercial organizations are likely to ever face a disaster as big as the FIFA scandal, but the critical lesson is the importance of recognising and responding to a crisis. The American writer Max DePree has said that: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality” and the leaders here seem to have failed that responsibility. We don’t know whether the Qatari bid committee was acting in cahoots with Bin Hamman, and there is no substantial suggestion that Blatter himself is personally corrupt. But as the Economist concluded: “It is now clear that he has presided over what many people in football regard as a sewer of dodgy dealing.”
Blatter is fond of saying that FIFA’s goal is to make the word a better place through football. He has certainly enriched the world of crisis management – by providing a cup-winning example of how not to do it.