22 October 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
Advanced Search
View Printable Version
FIFA - Building a transnational football community

World football's governing body FIFA is a powerful international development organisation with more country members than the United Nations and a key 'third party' role in mediating conflict in modern societies through reward-based competition. FIFA's rise was explored by Christiane Eisenberg, a professor of British history at Humboldt University, in a lecture series presented at South African universities by the German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD.

DAAD's 'Extra Time' project linked the host countries of the 2006 and 2010 FIFA World Cups through public debate on the social and cultural dimensions of soccer, during seven lecturers held at universities in South African host cities.

Eisenberg looked at the community-building power of FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association.

"There is a sociological insight hidden within this approach. This arises from the observation of modern sport as competition. For competition is a striking example of the positive character and socialising power of conflict in modern societies," she wrote in a paper.

"This argument is especially comprehensible with respect to the 'pure form of competitive struggle' in which, according to the sociologist Georg Simmel who wrote extensively on this topic, the prize of a contest is not in the hands of the adversaries themselves, but in the hands of a third party."

Eisenberg gave the market and sport as examples of this form of competition. Customers are the market's third party, enabling businesses to make profits without having to destroy their competitors.

In sport, the third party is the governing body. It is their recognition - medals, trophies and titles - that athletes strive for. A sporting clash becomes merely a means to an end, and teams have to adjust and relate without destroying each other.

Football's 'third party', FIFA, is interesting because it sees itself not only as the sport's global governing body, overseeing rules and licensing referees, but also as a "development aid organisation in football with a declared aim to create a transnational football community."

FIFA was set up in Paris in 1904, by football officials from seven European countries, and is headquartered in Zurich. Its original role was to unify the interpretation of rules and launch a major European tournament. It soon attracted member associations from other continents.

Since 1930, when the first World Cup was held in Uruguay, FIFA has organised four-year world cups and it now has 208 national associations - more members than the UN.

There was rapid growth in membership after 1945, when more than 100 former colonies and territories became sovereign states eager to be integrated into the world community through international organisations. FIFA had been seeking global representation and had generous membership conditions.

Huge growth in members, Eisenberg pointed out, also had a negative aspect because among them were very many politically dubious regimes. A survey in 1979 found that only 35 of 119 nations examined were democratic, constitutional states.

FIFA's generous admission practices were "a deliberate renunciation of any policy to examine the political nature of member associations," Eisenberg said. This, together with its inability as a global body to select its members, made it unable to exert influence over the political constitution of member associations.

"Thus, FIFA took no action against corrupt politicians who viewed football as a power
base (as in the dictatorships in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay), turned a blind eye to the links between clubs and drug cartels (as in Columbia), and did nothing to prevent association presidents being appointed from above (as in Eastern block countries or some former colonies). It even failed to pillory them in public.

"As a consequence the original maxim behind the organisation's activities - no politics - gradually developed into a statement of political bankruptcy," wrote Eisenberg.

"This turned out to be a problem in the 1960s and 70s when world public opinion began to take a more critical attitude towards authoritarian regimes and became more sensitive to the question of human rights. This in turn produced a growing number of political conflicts in world football and the FIFA leadership blundered from one political botch-up to the next."

Eisenberger gave examples of FIFA's support during the 1960s for South Africa's apartheid-tarnished football association, its consideration in 1973 of Chile as a venue for a World Cup qualifying match despite the national stadium being used as a torture prison, and in 1978 allowing Argentina - taken over by a military dictatorship - to organise the World Cup.

"In this time FIFA suffered from an extremely bad image. But in the following decade, the 1980s, the organisation transformed itself miraculously and managed to avoid any further political embarrassments," said Eisenberg. By then FIFA had learned lessons from the negative experiences, and important posts were occupied by politically sensitive people.

For Eisenberg the key point was the mid-1970s, when FIFA pursued the commercialisation and professionalisation of international football. "In this way it has systematically extended its financial resources and its global radius of action, as well as being able to redefine its duties."

At the same time, political conditions in the global body politic changed in its favour. One factor was new member nations, especially from Africa. They joined forces to create block-voting at FIFA congresses and used an article in its statutes - to promote the game of association football - to demand higher financial assistance corresponding to country needs.

In response FIFA engaged more professional staff and "grew rapidly into a global business with a vastly expanded financial basis: at first via sponsoring contracts with Coca Cola, Adidas and other firms, and later with the help of its own merchandising activities." This growth was strengthened from the 1980s by high income from TV rights for the World Cup.

Business was conducted on a profit basis, an approach fostered by Brazil's João Havelange, who was elected in 1974 but much-criticised by opponents who accused FIFA of operating as a capitalist entertainment business.

However, Eisenberg argued, this was not the case and there is an alternative interpretation.

While FIFA is capitalistic in accumulating income, its principles of profit distribution are unorthodox. It behaves more like cooperative businesses and labour movement companies where dividends are not a reward for capital invested but benefit members and their activities.

Indeed, Eisenberg said, FIFA is even more like an international non-governmental organisation, or NGO, a term which covers voluntary cooperative bodies that fulfill two criteria; they operate independently of governments and pursue cultural, humanitarian and developmental aims; and they contribute to implementing universal standard values, principles and activities with the help of an official elite.

Good examples are the International Red Cross, Greenpeace, Amnesty International or global organisations covering professions, industries, hobbies or sports. These NGOs cooperate and network with social pressure groups, other NGOs and with the UN.

FIFA works in partnerships with the UN and organises development projects including initiatives against racism and child labour in producing footballs, against polio in Africa and in support of SOS children's villages.

"In the world of international NGOs entrepreneurial dealings are seen as a legitimate means to raise the level of an organisation's material resources, its ability to disentangle problems and achieve political aims," Eisenberg explained.

However, FIFA differs from other international NGOs in that it has remained a membership-based organisation while most others are purely executive organs - a feature that has become a problem for FIFA because "income from entrepreneurial activities has reached such a size that membership fees have been reduced to a purely symbolic level".

This is illustrated by comparing the incomes of the UN and FIFA. They have similar member numbers - the UN has 200 member states and FIFA 208 national football associations. But while in the UN 47 members contribute 99% of the regular budget, FIFA subscriptions and levies for matches amount to less than 1% of income.

Because there is no member association with veto power (unlike in the UN), "the Zurich headquarters and its professional staff have an extraordinary amount of power concentrated in their hands, a fact which erodes the association's democratic basis," said Eisenberg.

But this 'top-down' power also enables FIFA's headquarters to focus its funds on member associations and use huge cash injections help to support specific development aid projects.

"Without a doubt FIFA is today one of the most financially powerful international NGOs. That said it utterly conforms to contemporary trends. For, when taken together, all the NGOs can mobilise more money for their projects than the whole of the United Nations system."

A decade ago FIFA initiated a new programme called GOAL. For the first time large sums were provided to improve the infrastructure of national football associations including new headquarters, professional staff and promoting participation by teams in international contests. Every association that applied could receive up to a million dollars over three-years.

Current FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, "took this gamble to demonstrate that money that poured directly into the football associations could be used in a useful and long-lasting way; and that, far from creating a new form of corruption, direct aid would lead national associations to become more aware of their responsibilities," wrote Eisenberg.

Direct funding allowed FIFA to monitor the autonomy and practices of members. A National Associations Committee was created in 1999 to scrutinise membership applications, observe elections, advise on how most effectively to use money awarded to them, and intervene in government attempts to meddle in association affairs or help with other difficulties.

Like the UN, FIFA finances inspectors and inspection trips, enabling it to monitor sporting politics, to try to influence matters and where necessary to threaten any association with sanctions or suspension. "Such threats have proved extremely effective," said Eisenberg. The committee has dealt with matters in the member associations of more than 100 countries.

Eisenberg said FIFA had given a long-term globalisation boost to the transnational football community and was also "primarily significant because it enforces values and standards, and regulates the current activities of the national associations in the interest of all parties."

This was a "remarkable community-building achievement" compared to the more transitory virtual football communities created by the media.

While in the 20th century the discourse on football mostly developed in regions with strong structural bases of international football, these were now also being built up in many poor countries, she continued:

"In this way football activities in abstract spaces are mediated alongside the concrete living context of groups and individuals, and football's intrinsic dimension of action can also be activated.

"All this has become possible because the commercialisation of the World Cup has provided FIFA, the 'third party' in the football competition, with money and power."

Still, the world soccer community is not the harmonious 'football family' portrayed by FIFA advertising. While development activities are supported by most FIFA members, it is not clear that this will continue and there are "some very real internal conflicts," said Eisenberg.

Highly developed countries have been campaigning against spending policies that work to their detriment. The "turbulent scenes" at recent FIFA congresses were the result of this structural conflict in world football.

Whether this problem can be resolved depends on many factors such as coalitions being built by opposing groups (African football is internally split), on the personality of the FIFA president, and on the world situation (for instance terrorism threats and economic crises).

But it will probably only be possible to settle the conflict if and when developing countries are able to match the level of European football, including in financial terms. "This in turn presupposes that the development policies supported by FIFA continue to be effective."

"Whether the transnational soccer community can continue to grow and flourish does not therefore solely depend on FIFA and the media. Global antagonisms and conflicts are also pushing themselves increasingly to the forefront," Eisenberg concluded.

* Professor Christiane Eisenberg
is Professor of British History
at the Centre for British Studies, Humboldt University, Germany.

* Eisenberg's talk was titled "The Development of a Transnational Soccer Community in a Changing Global Environment". The full paper, along with other Extra Time presentations, can be found here
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters

Email address *
First name *
Last name *
Post code / Zip code *
Country *
Organisation / institution *
Job title *
Please send me UWN’s Global Edition      Africa Edition     Both
I receive my email on my mobile phone
I have read the Terms & Conditions *