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Does Soccer Need FIFA? (Part Two)

Yesterday, I talked about FIFA's origins, its history, and its current operations. Today, I talk about what the game could do instead.

Bryn Lennon

Picking up right where we left off yesterday, today's question: is there a need for FIFA?

If the two main reasons for FIFA's existence at this point are to put on the World Cup and to develop the game, it could easily be argued that no, there is no real need for FIFA as it is currently constituted. I suppose a case could be made that does need some global oversight, but I'm not sure that a Politburo-style governing body is the way to go.

FIFA is the steward of the Laws Of The Game at this point, even though those laws were developed by the English FA. In order to have a standard, uniform set of rules by which the game is played, then, there needs to be some sort of governance - but I see no reason why a Football Governance Committee could not be comprised of the heads of all of the national Football Associations (or by someone they designate). This committee would be run like a corporate board - it would meet in public periodically (annually, or maybe twice a year) and discuss business brought to it since the last meeting by its constituent members.

These meetings would be in different locations every year - much like Major League Baseball's winter meetings, or the NFL's annual meeting, which takes place in the Super Bowl host city. The business of the governance committee would be transparent, regularly opened up to outside audit, and the meetings would be open to the press. All decisions of the committee would be subject to majority votes; that would go a long way to eliminating the abuse that FIFA has heaped on its own system over the decades.

As for the game itself, the World Cup is just the brand name of a tournament - and ultimately, I believe that the wrapper doesn't matter, it's the content that counts. I understand that this is an extreme example, but if enough FIFA member nations or federations decided tomorrow that they were fed up with FIFA and wanted to put on their own tournament of national federations, to determine who the best team in the world is, there is absolutely nothing to stop them from doing so - they could send a letter to FIFA notifying Sepp that they wish to end their membership, and then go do their own thing. And at that point, if enough of the big federations did this, FIFA would effectively dry up and die; without its cash cow, without a tournament featuring Spain, Germany, England, Italy, Brazil, France, etc., it would cease to exist pretty quickly and the new thing would become the new thing.

People love to watch the best nations in the world play once every four years to determine the "best" team in the world. It doesn't matter if it's called the FIFA World Cup or the World Football Championship or whatever other name you want to give it; as long as there is a quadrennial tournament, people will be happy and the demand will be filled. "FIFA World Cup" is a brand name, one that could be easily replaced by other brand names.

To use a possibly tenuous example, remember when everyone still had an AOL email address? People still have email, but nobody really has an AOL address any more, because AOL became an outmoded, outdated business model beyond which the world moved when there were better options available. There are, of course, no guarantees that what would rise from the ashes of Sepp Blatter's organization wouldn't be FIFA 2.0; but I for one would be willing to take that chance, because something better could easily come out of it.

The other portion of FIFA's mission, the "develop the game" portion, would be a little trickier to replace, but considering FIFA only spent $183 million on that in 2011, not impossible. It could be argued that national federations could more effectively develop the game in their own nations; we saw this strategy bear fruit in France in the 1990's with Clairefontaine, we're seeing it in Spain right now with the Spanish National Training Centre, and England just opened up a national training facility (St. George's Park) that will develop future generations of English players.

And that's just at the national team level - with the various club training centers like Barcelona's La Masia, Ajax's Academy, and others, who focus on getting kids when they're young and training them for years, it seems like the majority of the development of the game and of players, in real terms, is being done by countries at this point. Could FIFA do it any better? Based on their current track record, I'm pretty sure they can't. Can you name a FIFA youth development strategy, academy, or growth-of-the-game plan off the top of your head? Me neither, but I came up with Clairefontaine, La Masia and Ajax Academy easily from memory.

There is no doubt that the World Cup is a hugely popular tournament, and there is no doubt that the World Cup, almost despite FIFA, has done a lot to advance soccer fandom in traditionally non-soccer nations. To take a local example, Major League Soccer was created as a condition of the US hosting the World Cup in 1994, and the growth of the game in the US since the league started play in 1996 has been truly remarkable (MLS actually outdrew the NBA in average attendance in 2012) considering where the game was at that point. The thing is, though, FIFA has had almost nothing to do with MLS' growth over the years; MLS grew and continues to grow because of a determined effort from MLS executives to develop the league in a reasonable, realistic way, and because a new generation of fans have embraced MLS and continue to do so. This has almost nothing to do with FIFA.

What's left, then, is the governance of the game on a global level; the handling of citizenship issues for players, the determination of what is a "proper" international match, etc. Again, though, I see this as being able to be handled very well by the various associations - if they want to hold an international tournament, they should be able to send representatives to a Holiday Inn Express somewhere and bash out a structure and rules for said tournament fairly easily, without any need for a monolithic global body to do that for them. In order to sell said tournament to sponsors, the national federations could leverage the muscle of their countries' respective top leagues and their marketing expertise - because let's face it, nobody (with the possible exception of the NFL) markets their product globally better than Europe's top leagues.

The infrastructure to live in a FIFA-less world is already in place and time-tested; all we need now is for one major soccer nation to say "You know what? I don't think I need FIFA any more". Once that happens, the rest of the dominos will all fall rapidly, leaving FIFA alone at a half-eaten buffet, crying in its napkin. FIFA would no doubt put up a fight, and cite their history as guardians of the international game as a reason they should still exist, but when it comes right down to it, the game doesn't need guarding - it needs some fresh air and daylight, and I believe that is achievable without the greedy hands of FIFA pushing it in all the wrong directions.