We’re delighted to be able to welcome Richard Whittall, who writes the excellent “A More Splendid Life” site, to our site this evening. Tonight, he wonders whether the internet has the ability to muster the required momentum to change FIFA and concludes that… it doesn’t, probably.

It’s a familiar Internet phenomenon: something happens in the news that upsets a lot of people, someone says something on your Twitter feed about we should all “do something,” and in a few days the Internet Cause is born, complete with Twibbons, Facebook groups you can join simply by “liking” them, and dedicated websites pushing for “change.” The (already fading) uproar over FIFA’s decision to hand out World Cups to Russia and Qatar is just the latest in a long list of Internet causes célèbres. All in all, advocating for FIFA reform via the Internet is not a bad thing. But trying to lay down the foundation for significant institutional change on a medium used by many primarily to check Gawker updates in between trading partisan barbs on footie fan forums is a fool’s errand, at least according to New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell in a recent piece entitled “Small Change.” Says Gladwell of Internet Activism:

The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvelous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world. But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.

Not that there is anything particularly high-risk as far as anti-FIFA activism is concerned; there is little chance (I hope) that vocal criticism of Sepp Blatter could put you in the hospital or result in your house burning down by unexplained fire. Nevertheless, reforming FIFA requires at least a basic consensus on the sort of realistic, achievable changes we’d (and “we” must go beyond irate English and American soccer fans) like to see. Yet amid all the Internet bafflegab in the past few weeks, there has been little concrete discussion of just how exactly we should go about transforming FIFA outside of referring to a few admirable concepts.

For example, there have been several calls for “greater democracy” in FIFA.  Sounds lovely, until you piece together what exactly that might entail in an enormous, globe-encompassing sporting body. The much-maligned FIFA executive committee responsible for selecting World Cup host nations is for example is itself elected by the 208-member FIFA congress made up of representatives from each national association. We could, as some have suggested, revert back to having all 208 congress members decide on future World Cups, but that doesn’t really make FIFA more democratic. Democracy implies open elections. So do we impose more democracy by somehow “electing” representatives from each national association? Would fans vote? If so, what would be the minimum requirement for suffrage? Buying ticket packages to national team games? Finally, how would these elections be organized, especially in national federations in countries with no history of formal democracy?

Aside from more democracy, FIFA reformers also talk about the desire for more transparency. That’s certainly a more concrete goal, which includes a number of good ideas like open ballots, tighter rules on how and when nations can lobby voting members, and imposing strict financial limits on how much bidding countries can spend. Except all of these beg the question: how do you force a global body with appointed members to disclose anything or be accountable for its decisions? FIFA is like the UN except with actual decision-making power, and any institution unaccountable to a higher authority will be inherently subject to self-protection, secrecy, and therefore corruption (see the continuing problems at the International Olympic Committee, or the Roman Catholic church). We can take action to pressure our individual federations to withdrawal from FIFA, but what do we replace it with? Regardless of utopian visions of a world without governing bodies in sport, there has to be someone making the decisions at the top. World Cups don’t appoint themselves, nor is consensus on rule changes achievable without central enforcement. International football couldn’t happen without binding consensus from a higher governing body than national or geographic confederations. The key is determining what sort of leverage (if any) fans might have in forcing an international body like FIFA to operate with more accountability and transparency. These are still open questions, especially considering the difficulty fans already encounter in bringing about changes in their own national associations.

I’m not saying this to defend the status quo — I have always regarded the legacy of João Havelange’s bloated, pay cheque-driven FIFA as disastrous for modern international football.  But before we can get online forming Facebook groups demanding Sepp Blatter step down and leave us alone for ever, we should at least determine a viable alternative. That would itself require establishing realistic goals with broad consensus among concerned fans, something that will have to go beyond angry blog posts and Twitter hashtag protests. While the internet is still a superb medium for identifying and diagnosing the causes of institutional corruption, it is not the best in fomenting consensus on positive, realistic change. That requires old fashioned meetings, public discussion, consensus, political organization, focused, effective means of protest and most importantly, the discipline to focus on reform beyond FIFA’s periodic disgrace in the media. I’m not sure fans of international football are yet up to the task.

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