Football’s Great Reform Act

Despite an excellent World Cup, allegations of corruption still dog world football. Duncan O’Leary has a solution: democratising FIFA.

The Great Reform Act of 1832 is best known for extending the franchise – a first, if limited, step towards universal suffrage. But the Act’s other significant achievement was the elimination of so-called ‘rotten boroughs’. These Parliamentary constituencies were so-called because the size of their electorates, and the absence of a secret ballot, opened the door to corruption.

The constituency of Newton, on the Isle of Wight, comprised just 14 houses, having shrunk over the years but retained its right to elect an MP. In Old Sarum, Wiltshire, just 32 people were entitled to vote. The move to eliminate more than fifty of these boroughs, whilst almost doubling the number of men entitled to vote in general elections, made it far harder for any one wealthy patron to hold a constituency in his gift. A majority could easily be bought in a rotten borough, but not with an expanded electorate.

Such concerns may seem distant from the world of 2014, but perhaps they have relevance. FIFA, world football’s governing body, faces a battle for its reputation. The problem is not this year’s dazzling World Cup, but the furore over where the 2022 competition will be hosted. FIFA has become beset with (unproven) accusations that the decision to appoint Qatar as the 2022 hosts was improper.

Illustration by Modern Activity

Illustration by Modern Activity

In 2011 Lord Triesman, the former head of the FA, made allegations of corruption against four FIFA executive committee members. Six of FIFA’s executive committee have since been accused in Parliament of ‘improper and unethical behaviour’. Jerome Valcke, the FIFA general secretary, has also confirmed that an email in which he alleged that Qatar ‘bought’ the 2022 tournament was genuine.

Whatever the outcome of the saga, FIFA will want to demonstrate that its decision-making process is beyond reproach. It is here that the lessons of the Great Reform Act should be learned. As things stand, just 24 people vote to determine where the next World Cup will be held. This group, the FIFA Executive Committee, is comprised of: the FIFA president; the Senior Vice President; one representative from each continental association; a representative from one of the Home Nations of the UK; and 15 additional committee members, each appointed on four-year terms. Based on its size, this electorate of 24 could be considered as a rotten borough.

FIFA should dramatically expand the electorate, decentralising power and dispersing decision-making. Rather than having one elector per continental association, there should be hundreds. For example, an electorate of 100 from England could be made up of:

  • 20 representatives of the national football association
  • 20 managers from the clubs at the top of the league
  • 20 club captains from those clubs
  • 20 fan representatives from those clubs
  • 20 representatives with logistical experience of hosting large events, including mayors, local authority chief executives and former bid-winners for events such as the Commonwealth Games or the Olympics.

This kind of electorate could be replicated in every country. Votes would then be aggregated to determine the final position of each of the continental associations. The final votes of the continental associations, alongside that of the FIFA president, would determine the result.

This expanded electorate would bring together different perspectives and interests in each country. Each national football association would examine the potential for bids to boost grassroots initiatives and player development. The managers and players would understand the ingredients for great matches, worrying about practice facilities and playing conditions. The fans would consider factors like ticket prices, accommodation and transport links. The logistics experts would scrutinise the finances and technical details of each bid. Each would vote accordingly.

Not only would this approach draw on a welcome breadth of expertise, the sheer size of an expanded electorate would nullify any suggestion that a few wealthy patrons could determine the result of the process. With the votes of thousands of people determining the result, any allegations of corruption could be easy to dismiss. Fans would be reassured and FIFA would be in a position not just to defend its record, but to point to a robust and democratic approach for the future.

The old adage is that power is taken, not given. 1832 was a case study in this – a reluctant establishment granted concessions in the face of popular agitation and discontent. For many historians, the Act was an essentially conservative measure, designed to stave off revolution. Today, something similar is likely to be needed today to drive reform of the people’s game. FIFA may yet decide to reform itself. More likely, a grassroots movement will have to emerge that is strong enough and insistent enough that big changes are needed. However we get there, one thing is clear: global football is ripe for its own Great Reform Act.