FIFA World Cup: It’s time to look at the brands which sponsor it

With the World Cup in full swing, it's time FIFA stood up to its sponsors, and its sponsors stood up to FIFA, writes sports integrity advocate Jaimie Fuller.

One of the great benefits of Australia making its fourth successive football World Cup is just how it continues to grow the interest in the sport in this country.

It is also gives us an opportunity to reflect on everything that goes with the World Cup, the organisation that runs it – FIFA – and the brands that support it.

More than three years ago – six months before the FIFA arrests in Zurich in May 2015 – I and my two fellow co-founders of an advocacy group called ‘New FIFA Now’ (of whom fellow Aussie and FIFA whistleblower Bonita Mersiades is one) called on FIFA’s sponsors to hold FIFA to account for the decisions it made.

The main focus was on Qatar, and its human and workers’ rights record, in the context of FIFA’s decision to grant it the hosting rights for the next World Cup in 2022.

The key question was: how was the business integrity of the big brands that support FIFA impacted by what former US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch very politely characterised as the ‘FIFA Way’ of doing business?

That question is no less relevant today.

It is also no less relevant to other sports and the brands that support them, particularly the big sporting bodies and events such as Olympics, athletics and cycling.

The big brands that put hundreds of millions of dollars into organisations and events such as FIFA and the World Cup each have a code of business conduct that requires the highest levels of integrity, or words to that effect. The majority of them also espouse a commitment to The Universal Declaration of Human Rights; and require that the rights of workers in their supply chain be consistent with their values.

But when it comes to their relationship with football and FIFA, the constant brand building sugar hit of the World Cup has so far outweighed any adherence to the brands’ so-called principles.

Some of these brands, who have been major partners of FIFA since the mid-1970s, have repeatedly turned a blind eye to the serial misdemeanours, mismanagement and corruption surrounding the world football body and its global offshoots.

I’m talking of legally proven scandals related to the marketing and broadcasting debacle of the late 1990s, as well as more recently the decisions to award World Cup hosting rights to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.

Of course, the converse applies also.

Only a few weeks ago I challenged FIFA to show some leadership and call out one of their sponsors about their attitudes, policies and practices, after the CEO of Qatar Airways, Akber Al Baker, told a media conference that women couldn’t possibly lead an airline.

Women have led countries. They discover cures to diseases. They’ve flown to the moon and back. They play sport really well. But, according to him, they can’t possibly run an airline.

This, from a sponsor who is also a senior figure in the country which is the next World Cup host.

When half of the world’s population is female, when the growth in almost any sport in terms of participation comes from women and girls, when we already know of the gender pay gap in most sport, when you consider the CEO of FIFA is a woman, you would hope that a principled organisation would not only tell their sponsor that their statement was unacceptable, but tell the world that they told their sponsor that.

The fact that sporting organisations and brands do not show a willingness to be values-based and be part of the solution not only compromises the authenticity of their values, but it also means that, ultimately, in my view, they will be on the wrong side of history.

Jaimie Fuller is the executive chairman of sports compression wear company, SKINS, and chair of the Foundation for Sports Integrity.


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