This story first appeared in the November 2015 edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
It’s the news which has dominated the football landscape for months. The allegations of corruption that have surrounded FIFA following the arrest of several senior officials in May have transcended the sport and dominated front, as well as back, pages across the world.
The scandal led to the recent suspension of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who had already announced his intention to step down ahead of the presidential elections, to be held in February 2016. So world football’s governing body finds itself at a critical crossroads in its history.
The sport has never been as popular as it is currently, yet there is a huge public demand for the game’s administrators to change at the very highest level, and to restore credibility among the organisation.
So what does Arsène Wenger, one of the most experienced and respected coaches in the global game, think can be done to resolve the situation? The official magazine sat down exclusively with the boss to discuss the many issues facing FIFA.
WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE HAPPEN NEXT AT FIFA?
First I would like to say that the authority of FIFA is very important. Football was able to spread around the world because it was well organised and because there was an authority for world football to organise that and create rules that are respected all over the world, as well as keeping unity for our game. That is vital.
It looks obvious to us but FIFA played a major part in that world organisation. So it is vital to me that this authority is restored and respected. But of course, once people know that there is corruption, this authority and credibility goes naturally. So the first task of our game is to restore credibility and authority. In my opinion, that goes through three different steps.
"The good thing is that it doesn’t stop the popularity of football at the moment. If you go to a game and enjoy it, you forget about all that. I’ve always had a big respect for FIFA"
The first one is to identify people who have not respected the clean side of our game and were corrupt. This looks to me to be very long work, much longer than expected. With the elections taking place on February 26, 2016, that’s far too short a time-frame to identify all the problems that FIFA has at the moment.
I think that the first step has to be done really well. To regain authority and credibility, people need to have the feeling that all of those who have not worked in respect of the rules are punished. The second step is maybe to reorganise FIFA. What you want in the modern game is of course transparency. I have been in professional football for a long, long time but I cannot tell you what happened there because I don’t know the numbers.
The fact that FIFA is based in a country [Switzerland] that is a little bit protected from intrusion, especially on the banking side, was maybe an incitement to do whatever they wanted.
Transparency is absolutely vital for us to believe again and know what’s happening. Football generates a lot of money, but you want to know that it is used well. It looks that all the money that FIFA has given to develop world football locally has not been used in the right way. That’s why I think this will be a very long inquiry.
Today I just don’t know who is guilty but, like everybody who loves football, I want to know what has been done wrongly and who has done it wrongly. I wouldn’t like to accuse people just because they are in the newspapers at the moment. I personally would love this inquiry to create transparency in the organisation and in all the financial affairs.
Then the third step is maybe to recreate an efficient organisation, where competent people are in place and are working in a system that does not allow any corruption anymore. That means that the people who make decisions are controlled. For me, that’s the most important.
The good thing is that it doesn’t stop the popularity of football at the moment. If you go to a game and enjoy it, you forget about all that. I’ve always had a big respect for FIFA, because when they decided something, it had authority and was applied. Once the doubt is there though, you’re not happy anymore. That authority over world football needs to be restored.
WHO DO YOU BELIEVE SHOULD LEAD THE INVESTIGATION?
The local justice in Switzerland can do it. The headquarters are in Switzerland, which means the responsibility is local. The difficulty is that the implications of what they’ve done are on all the continents. There has to be some transparency in all the continents.
It looks at the moment that a lot happened in Central America and South America. Nothing has come out from Africa yet and I don’t know about anything coming out in Europe. That’s the complication of this whole story - it’s not just Switzerland where things have happened.
The headquarters are in Switzerland and that’s why I believe this inquiry will be very long. At the moment the leaders of this inquiry look to be the United States and Switzerland. Let’s see if something else comes out.
IS IT DOWN TO FIFA TO MODERNISE THEMSELVES?
Yes of course. It has to be modernised and a new structure needs to be created, where it looks like it is not necessarily the head of the federations who have to be appointed to make the decisions, but maybe people who work permanently at FIFA and make the right decisions.
There has to be a board that maybe has to be bigger and larger. The attribution of the World Cups needs to be changed, for sure. I’ve already said it needs to go through a computer database. You feed in the data to see if all the requirements are met, rather than being decided only by human beings.
If there is a competition in the end between two or more countries which have met all the criteria, then there needs to be an open discussion about it after that.
So many things need to be changed. I’m not a specialist in the organisation and structure of a huge organisation like that. But it has to change. It has to. The structure has become slowly bigger and bigger, but maybe the whole process has not been thought through to adjust to the modern compulsory world reputation of football.
WHOEVER SUCCEEDS SEPP BLATTER AS PRESIDENT HAS A HUGE JOB ON THEIR HANDS. WHAT QUALITIES DO YOU THINK THE IDEAL CANDIDATE SHOULD POSSESS?
First I think it needs to be somebody who loves football. Somebody who has integrity, somebody who wants to develop the game and wants to put football into the 21st century. Let’s not forget that football is 150 years old and is the most popular sport in the world.
There’s more to come from our game. It looks like China, Asia, the United States are opening up to football. I believe that the first thing that all these regions will want is integrity. The game is beautiful, the game is fantastic. Everybody loves the game. Let’s make sure that the organisation has integrity and a clean reputation.
HAD YOU SEEN WARNING SIGNS OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS THAT THIS SORT OF CRISIS WOULD HIT FIFA ONE DAY?
Honestly I was a bit sceptical because I always had such a big respect for FIFA that I was a little bit in denial. I thought they were an easy target and that people were jealous of football.
But there were little signs that were worrying, like money moving between countries. You wonder why that was happening. There were little signs and little noises that were worrying, but I was always in denial. I couldn’t believe it because it seemed to be going well. People were making good money working for our game and there was no explanation.
HOW HAS THE SCANDAL DAMAGED THE SPORT?
There has been some damage. I don’t think it’s damaged the popularity of our game, because when people who support their club go to a game, they don’t think about FIFA.
I think it’s more sadness than real damage in attendances, but sadness that you’re not proud of the sport you represent. You would like to know that you’re working in a sport where things are clean.
I still believe today that 90 or 95 per cent of the decisions that have been made have been made in a clean way. But we cannot support the five per cent that weren’t because they damaged the 95 per cent.
I think overall FIFA has done a great job in developing our game, but at the moment we stand there and are speechless because of a small percentage of decisions that have not been made well. We live in a world now where information can go from London to Beijing in one second, and where anything wrong will be analysed. That’s why we cannot accept that.
HOW MUCH CONTACT DO THE CLUBS HAVE WITH FIFA GENERALLY? WHAT ARE THE LINES OF COMMUNICATION?
No, nothing at all. I know people at FIFA because I see them at tournaments. I know some of them very well because they work on the technical side and were coaches before. But I personally have zero contact with FIFA outside of World Cups, where I meet them. That’s it though, we have no personal or direct contact with FIFA.
DO YOU THINK IT’S AN ISSUE THAT THE MAJOR CLUBS ARE NOT CONSULTED MORE?
I think what is more important is that we have contact with UEFA. Ivan Gazidis our CEO is much more in touch with them. What you would like is that the relationship between FIFA and UEFA is good, which wasn’t the case recently. I follow how FIFA tries to develop world football in Africa and Asia, because that is a vital part of our game as well.
SO HAVE YOU SEEN GOOD EXAMPLES OF FIFA’S WORK IN PROGRESS TOO?
Of course. The biggest competition in the world is the World Cup and FIFA has developed this game very well. Many stadiums in Africa have been built through the help of football, and in South America and Central America as well.
"You can imagine a world competition, or at least a European competition, outside these organisations, if the frictions become bigger. So we have to sit together and put that all on the table"
That’s why I say that they have done a very good job in 95 per cent of the cases. But some aspects have to become transparent, like the attribution of the World Cups, like how the money is used, what kind of bonuses are paid, what money people make. It is a world organisation who generate money through the popularity of the game. You want to know how this money is used. Today, maybe that transparency doesn’t exist. It would also be a protection for people who work for the game because we would not have all these problems today if the transparency had been there.
IF FIFA DO TAKE THIS OPPORTUNITY TO REFORM, WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE OTHER CHANGES IMPLEMENTED? THE INTERNATIONAL FOOTBALL CALENDAR FOR EXAMPLE...
Of course, it is now or never. You would like to put it all on the table. You see now that the European Championship has gone from 16 to 24 teams. I bet you, that the way the system was organised, to be elected as new president of FIFA, the programme would be to move the World Cup from 32 to 40 teams.
Why? Because Africa today has five countries in the World Cup. Europe has 13 countries – that cannot work for much longer. You cannot take countries away from Europe and if you want to be elected as FIFA President, you need the votes from the African countries, so you want to give more to Africa.
So the next World Cups will be 40 teams. We face a situation where it’s impossible for the players to get through a season and get rest. We had the example of Alexis this year, who came back just days before the Premier League season started.
Then of course people say that at the start of the season he’s not playing as well as he was the season before. Well he cannot. I gave him a four-week rest because I know that there is no break in winter. He played 55 games last season plus the Copa America. If you give him no holiday, you kill the player.
This kind of friction that it creates between the clubs, national teams and international competitions can create a split. One day the clubs could move away and say ‘enough is enough, we pay a huge amount of money for our best players so we’ll get them together ourselves and organise our own competitions’. It’s important that all of that gets on the table while we have the opportunity.
IS THAT YOUR FEAR THEN?
You can imagine that 20 billionaires can organise a world club competition with their own rules. That can happen. Let’s project ourselves 50 years ahead. Travelling will be much quicker. Instead of it taking 11 or 12 hours to go to Beijing, it might take three or four.
You can imagine a world competition, or at least a European competition, outside these organisations, if the frictions become bigger. So we have to sit together and put that all on the table.
Limit the number of games for the players, limit the number of competitions as well. That is certainly one of the tasks facing FIFA. It’s not the immediate one – because that’s certainly to restore credibility and authority. After that we need to see what we can do organisation- wise. They need to get it right and this is a great opportunity to do it.
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