News 14th Jun 2018

The World Cup, Russia and Corruption: what’s the problem?

Robert Barrington

Executive Director (former)

Robert served as Executive Director of Transparency International UK from 2013 until July 2019. He is now Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at Sussex University’s Centre for the Study of Corruption.

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Gary Lineker managed to generate a twitter storm last week by commenting that the UK is corrupt as well as Russia, and therefore that should not be a basis for deciding who hosts the World Cup.  Is that true – and how relevant is it to football?  Robert Barrington, Executive Director of Transparency International UK, gives his view on why in all probability we will look back in future years and conclude that corruption has been synonymous with Russia hosting the World Cup – but lessons have already been learned and we should be expecting FIFA to do better in future.

On pretty much all indices of corruption, Russia does badly.  On TI’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), it ranks 135th out of 180. The Global Corruption Barometer reports that 34% of people said they had paid a bribe to access public services in the previous twelve months.

The UK, on the other hand, does rather well – eighth place on the CPI.  But the UK also experiences corruption – as well as exporting it via companies paying bribes, and acting as a safe haven for the proceeds of corruption of elsewhere (including Russia).  Indices which measure illicit financial flows show the UK to be doing much less well.

The key question raised by Gary Lineker is whether a country in which corruption is prevalent should be debarred from hosting football’s World Cup – and the same might apply to the Olympic Games or any other major sporting event.  If, for a moment, you imagine that it was agreed corruption should rule out a country as host: how would you decide?  TI is clear that corruption happens in all countries, and according to the definition you use, you might decide that the UK is equally ruled out of hosting the World Cup.

Moreover, even the UN admits those countries to sit round the table – as does the Council of Europe in Russia’s case, and ASEAN in – for example – the case of Myanmar.  Why should FIFA or the IOC be arbiters of issues where they are ill-placed to make a judgement?

So once you test that line of thought, it looks as though a country’s level of corruption is not a suitable reason to ban it from hosting a major sporting event.  There is a further argument that some countries are so out of line regarding a basket of international norms, including human rights, that they can never be a suitable host.  Clearly this did apply to apartheid South Africa; but you don’t have to look far for examples of major sporting events hosted by repressive and unpleasant regimes (the 1980 Moscow Olympics, for example).  It is immediately clear that this is a minefield of subjective judgement and political alliances.

But there are two important things that could be done by bodies such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee in relation to corruption.  These may be a better starting point, both because they are more objective, and also because they are likely to be criteria on which certain countries fail – making it less likely that a country where corruption is prevalent, for example, would end up hosting the World Cup.  However, the sports bodies, themselves often not paragons of good governance, would need the courage to implement them, the capacity to monitor them and the back up plans to change venues if that were required.

These twin criteria are:

1. Make sure the bids are clean and the hosting rights have been awarded fairly.

2. Keep a tight watch over the event’s organisation – especially including construction and the award of contracts – to make sure that the opportunities for and occurrences of corruption are minimised. Ideally, this should be hard-wired into the contract.

Oh dear.  We can probably assume that Russia has failed on both counts.  The World Cup rights were awarded at a time when FIFA was seething with corruption, as was long suspected and has subsequently been revealed.  That revealing came from investigations by the US and other authorities, but FIFA itself – despite the Garcia report which failed to secure Russian cooperation and found that the relevant computers had been mysteriously destroyed – has not succeeded in undertaking a proper investigation into what went on and whether corruption contributed to Russia winning the World Cup rights. (Let me note here that there are also allegations around the Australian bid – it would be naïve to believe this is solely a Russian problem.)

Regarding corruption in the event’s organising, the first stirrings are just coming to light around the Russian World Cup  – and, of course, four years on, we are beginning to hear in some detail about the concerns about Brazil.  But the analogy is the Sochi Winter Olympics, at which the construction and other costs came in at four times the original bid.  Given the location of this year’s World Cup, the track record at Sochi, and the lax oversight regime that can be expected of FIFA, it seems only a matter of time before the stories start leaking out about how corrupt cronies of the Russian leadership have managed to enrich themselves again off the back of a major sporting event.  We can look forward to the brazen denials.

Does it matter? At the end of the day, doesn’t everyone just want the best possible tournament?  Here are three reasons why it does matter:

  • Other countries lose out.  The stated values of FIFA, the IOC and other sporting bodies usually embrace fairness and a level playing field.  This is not the case when there is a competition for who can be best at paying bribes to secure the rights.
  • Local kleptocrats have their power reinforced.  Granting rights to corrupt governments is effectively handing them over money and global respectability.  That will help to keep them in power longer, to the detriment of their citizens.
  • Corruption creates an enabling environment for cheating.  This week’s revelations about bribes for West African referees have already highlighted the risks and rewards of match-fixing.  Russia itself has a serial history of state-sponsored cheating through drugs.  Given these known challenges, everything should be done to minimise the risks of corruption and cheating, and the risks must certainly be higher in a country in which corruption is part of daily life.

The good news is that FIFA has now changed its system for World Cup bids – there are new bidding criteria, including compliance and human rights, and these will be laid down in clauses in the host contract.  This is mirrored by advances at the IOC, where new clauses have been included in their Host City Contract.  The IOC did the same for the Host City Contract 2024, and my colleagues at TI France are playing an important role in monitoring this.

If major sporting events are to be held in countries with high levels of corruption, the least we can expect is that the governing bodies of those sports award the hosting rights through a fair process, monitor the period between the award of hosting rights and the event to ensure that it is as far as possible free of corruption, and are extra vigilant during the event to ensure that a corrupt environment does not enable cheating.  If any of these things go badly wrong, the sport’s governing bodies need the courage to re-award the rights elsewhere – but of course, that can only be done on a legal basis, hence the importance of the contracts.  Football fans rightly expect nothing less.