FIFA, or the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, is the lawmaking body for world soccer. It is responsible for not only creating the laws of the game on the field, dictating what qualifies as a handball or when using the newly designed Video Assistant Referee is appropriate, but also enforcing a code of conduct for clubs, players, international organizations, and regional federations. There is a large body of committees, courts, and representatives that comprise the top level of FIFA. These entities control much of how soccer functions throughout the world and makes consequential decisions that affect the world on and off the field. Because soccer is the most popular sport in the world, FIFA decisions can be critical in the performance of national economies and other areas of society. For this reason, FIFA’s ability to be a largely self-contained organization which is able to shield itself from outside interference is problematic. FIFA funds all of the national federations, who select FIFA committee members. Lower FIFA officials are incentivized to follow FIFA decisions closely. When these decisions have been tainted by corruption and bribery, as will be discussed below, it is then worrying that FIFA is neither accountable to a democratic system of election for officials nor to many national laws. The result is that, for example, FIFA can award Qatar the right to host the World Cup despite recorded bribery and can allow them to hold onto that right despite using forced labor in building stadiums, all while being funded by FIFA to continue doing so. Since the basis for FIFA’s profit is domestic leagues and member nations’ federations, the best solution is a collective effort by these leagues and federations to hold FIFA accountable.

FIFA’s Government System

Generally, FIFA functions similarly to a state’s federal government. At the very top is FIFA’s Congress, which legislates the laws of the game, passes statutes dictating a code of conduct, and generally controls the direction of global soccer policy. Each FIFA member country selects one member of their federation to represent them in Congress. When FIFA’s Congress is not in session, disputes about statute violations, as well as the passage of emergency statutes and regulations, is handled by the Executive Committee. Committee members act as the legislative body when Congress is not in session, which is the majority of the year. Included in the committee is the President and other executive officials chosen by Congress.

The statutes, codes, and goals that FIFA’s Congress establishes set outer boundaries for regional federations, who are responsible for “respect[ing] the statutes, aims and ideals of football’s governing body and promot[ing] and manag[ing] our sport accordingly.” For example, while FIFA has created the Implementation Assistance and Approval Program regulating the use of Video Assistant Referees (VAR), international federations such as the North American Soccer Federation  (CONCACAF) are in charge of its specific implementation in international competitions based in North America. In CONCACAF competition between national teams, VAR is only useable in specific scenarios. Meanwhile, domestic leagues for club teams, such as the MLS, can craft entirely different rules around VAR, where VAR can only be used to check for “clear and obvious refereeing errors.”

Enforcement of this system revolves around FIFA’s court system, which includes three judicial bodies: the Disciplinary Committee, the Ethics Committee, and the Appeals Committee. The Disciplinary Committee enforces sanctions and banishment of people, clubs, leagues, and federations for violating FIFA’s statutes and Disciplinary Code. For example, the Committee banned two Russian players in 2021 for violating FIFA’s doping regulations. The Ethics Committee investigates and punishes breaches of the Code of Ethics. For instance, former FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, was banned by the Ethics Committee after having been found guilty of accepting bribes to select Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup. He was subsequently banned from all FIFA events for six years and eight months, as well as fined one million Swiss Francs. The Appeals Committee handles appeals from both committees and can reverse decisions or adjust punishments. In the case of Sepp Blatter, the Appeals Committee reduced the ban to six years and the fine to only fifty thousand Swiss Francs because of “mitigating circumstances” including “activities and services rendered to FIFA.” The highest court of appeals recognized by FIFA actually resides outside of FIFA’s internal judicial system. The Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) has the final say on any dispute on appeal. When someone bringing a dispute before the Court of Appeals are dissatisfied with the result, they may bring the dispute to the CAS, who despite being an entirely separate entity who arbitrate for sports leagues around the world, will apply FIFA rules and occasionally Swiss law to settle the dispute on a de novo review. When Blatter’s ban was reduced, he appealed to the CAS to eliminate the ban entirely. The Court, applying FIFA statutes, affirmed the reduced ban.

FIFA’s Concentrated Power and the Subsequent Potential for Corruption

The Sepp Blatter incident showcases the issues with the FIFA legal system. The system is almost entirely self contained. When signing to participate in FIFA events, players, clubs, and organizations agree to bring disputes only to FIFA courts. Even if a case is brought to the CAS, they will strictly apply FIFA rules and regulations. While “[choice of forum] clauses are void in many legal systems […] football players seeking to have such clauses struck down would face substantial risk; bringing a case to court is accompanied by heavy internal sanctions for the member allowing it and negative consequences for the athlete’s personal career.” This means that FIFA has exclusive control over the welfare of players and are able to implement rules that give FIFA and its organizations and clubs overwhelming power to control the lives of their players. For example, players weren’t able to move clubs in any circumstance without the clubs paying high transfer fees even if their contract with their old club had expired until very recently. This severely limited the ability of players to move to the club of their choice and to maneuver themselves into situations that were beneficial for themselves and their families.

This presents a major problem. Federations select members to join Congress. The Congresspeople then elect other officials, such as the president and members of the judicial committees. All branches of the FIFA government are intertwined and each branch is controlled by Congress, whose members are chosen by federations containing officials chosen by regionally based FIFA officials. With FIFA’s ability to insulate itself from national laws, the organization is largely free to make decisions affecting the entire world both on and off the field. For example, the World Cup is a global event that, when held in Russia in 2018, earned that country roughly twenty-six to thirty-one billion dollars in revenue. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are generated and a country’s entire economy can be transformed. Countries like the United States are able to punish some FIFA officials for racketeering and other serious offenses. However, FIFA’s internal decisions can stand as legitimate decisions even when tainted by bribery and corruption. For example, the decision to select Russia and Qatar as World Cup hosts made by the closed FIFA government stood and the World Cup was still awarded to Russia and Qatar (which had similar corruption accusations), despite officials being caught on camera selling their votes to Qatar.

FIFA’s abilities to enforce its decisions while protecting themselves from outside interference allows FIFA to make decisions that benefit only FIFA Committee members without consequence except in extreme situations in which outside forces are able to punish legitimate crimes. For example, FIFA President Gianni Infantino was awarded the Order of Friendship Medal by Russian President Putin after allowing the World Cup to take place in Russia despite a bribery scandal. The deficiencies of this system were showcased by FIFA’s treatment of Russia, following the recent invasion of Ukraine. Initially, FIFA was lenient with Russia in recognition of their recent dealings concerning the World Cup. FIFA permitted the Russian national team to continue playing, but not on home soil and only under the title of “Football Union of Russia,” as well as without an anthem or fans. This was lenient considering that World Cup qualifying games were due to take place in the near future. In World Cup qualifying, Russia would play teams such as Ukraine and other nations who were in extreme resistance to Russia’s actions, didn’t want to face Russia, and would likely forfeit.

The reaction of the soccer world, perhaps, demonstrates the only solution to the FIFA monopoly. In reaction to these light sanctions, the soccer federations of Sweden, Poland, and the Czech Republic declined to play against Russia in the upcoming World Cup qualifiers. This would mean that Russia would win by default and qualify for the World Cup. If other countries were to follow suit, Russia could hypothetically win the 2022 World Cup without having played a single game. Fearing such an outcome and the massive loss of revenue, FIFA was forced, through international pressure, to ban the Russian national teams and all Russian domestic club teams from playing. Herein lies what might be the solution to the FIFA monopoly. If countries are forced to subscribe to FIFA’s laws and abide by its self-chosen and self-contained courts for fear of sanctions, then only collective action is enough to prevent FIFA from making unilateral, politically-charged, and self-oriented decisions. 

The basis of FIFA’s control over soccer begins at the club and federation level. Federations are supported by leagues and clubs, who are in turn supported by fans. If fans are displeased with their federation in relation to FIFA’s actions, by boycotting games and refusing to give money, federations will be forced to either elect new officials or to take a stronger stance. This will affect change in FIFA’s Congress through FIFA’s election system which will then permeate to FIFA’s executive and judicial branches. Poland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic have demonstrated that the unified actions of only three member nations is enough to change FIFA’s decisions. Given FIFA’s firm control over global soccer and the way in which top officials are largely free from accountability, it is only the collective action of constituent parts of FIFA that can make a difference.

Author Biography: Dan Wilken is a Moderator of the International Law Society’s International Law and Policy Brief (ILPB) and a J.D. candidate at The George Washington University Law School. He has a B.A. in History from Brown University.