- Associated Press - Friday, October 2, 2015

PARIS (AP) - Here’s a cheery thought for those despairing of the unrelenting disaster that is FIFA. In Chinese, the word “crisis” is formed from two characters: “danger” and “opportunity.” As grim as things look at the top of football, there may still be a chance to salvage a brighter future from the scorched earth of Sepp Blatter’s reign.

For that to happen, governments and lawmakers globally must get far more vigorously involved in arm-twisting football administrators for root-and-branch change. Bombard the switchboard at FIFA’s Zurich HQ. Make greater use of their powers and media exposure to name and shame. Hold more hearings, launch more inquiries. Yell far more loudly from rooftops in Westminster, Congress, Brussels, the United Nations and other centers of clout: “Enough! Clean up or we may have to do it for you.”

Football isn’t just a photo-op. Chancellor Angela Merkel shook clenched fists of delight when she watched Germany win the World Cup in Brazil. Barack Obama took time out to phone the World Cup-winning women’s team. Perhaps calls and clenched fists waved at Blatter by those with political power could now help persuade him to do the decent thing and step down immediately. Granted, FIFA isn’t Syria or climate change. But given the meltdown of leadership and honesty in an industry that generates billions of dollars and employs tens of thousands, how about an emergency summit of governments to crank up demands for change? Something more vocal than the informal chat European Union sports ministers had on FIFA in July that produced no public statement.

In short, build a tide of political outrage so Blatter’s successor, when he is elected and takes over in February, does so with sweat on his brow, painfully aware that not only is it closing time for FIFA in the last-chance saloon, but the cockroaches must be swept out the door.

The two most untouchable-looking people in sport used to be Blatter and Lance Armstrong. No allegation would stick. Fear, silence, money, power and collusion inside their sports helped protect them. It took outside forces - the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for Armstrong and U.S. and Swiss justice officials sifting through Blatter’s reign at FIFA - to bring them crashing down or, in Blatter’s case, limp slowly away. In both cases, the lesson is the same: sports cannot be left to police themselves. Muscular and permanent external scrutiny may taste like bitter medicine to sports that fiercely, and for sound reasons, guard their traditional autonomy. But it also can nurse them back to health.

As wise people have long noted: “With great power comes great responsibility.” The leeway granted to sports to run themselves is a great power. It also makes sense. One wouldn’t want governments running the show, turning football on its head with each election, installing cronies in top jobs or dictating changes to the offside rule. But the quid pro quo must be sports leadership beyond reproach, exercising power with great responsibility. Otherwise, their autonomy becomes hard to justify.

“Political leadership is contributing to (sports’) governance malaise, not helping solve it,” says Brendan Schwab, a vice president of the global players’ union, FIFPro. “Because they are so quick to recognize the autonomy of sports rather than acknowledge the duties that should go alongside that.”

“We have to work as hard on our political leaders to stop granting this privilege, because they are confused by the mystique of sport, and start holding these bodies to account,” he said. “There’s no doubt that we won’t get the reforms through unless the political leadership is deeply engaged.”

New FIFA Now, a campaign group of politicians and others, makes an enticing argument that a respected non-football leader like former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other luminaries should temporarily take charge at FIFA, presumably with rubber gloves and bleach. Clean the place out, with fresh elections, new executives and new rules.

Pie-in-the-sky stuff. Football isn’t going to surrender power to outsiders, even temporarily. But intense, sustained grilling from politicians and governments between now and FIFA’s Congress on Feb. 26 perhaps might make football administrators realize they must elect the candidate most likely to grasp the nettle of deep reform, if such a person exists.

“We can apply the pressure,” said Emma McClarkin, a British lawmaker in the European Parliament involved in New FIFA Now. “I am doing what I possibly can to make this happen. The other people will have to ask themselves these questions.”

Daylight robbery takes two guilty parties: the robbers and bystanders who watch and don’t intervene. Likewise, politicians must get more involved in fighting the rot at FIFA to avoid becoming complicit in the damage it is doing to the game.

So let’s have many more hearings - only better attended next time - like the one in a U.S. Senate committee in July where Sen. Richard Blumenthal said likening football leaders to the Mafia “is almost insulting to the Mafia, because the Mafia would never have been so blatant, overt and arrogant in its corruption.”

And more parliamentary inquiries hearing evidence of FIFA sleaze, as Britain’s legislature is doing.

More robust statements.

More political will.

More pressure.

Just more.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at [email protected] or follow him at https://twitter.com/johnleicester

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