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Volume 21 No. 23
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The 2018 FIFA World Cup — a true test for the property

Editor’s note: This column is revised from the print edition.

Let’s get the dirty work done quickly. We think FIFA, despite the presence of the 2018 World Cup, is headed for struggles and strife. And 2022, when FIFA goes to Qatar, may not be much better.

Why do we write that?

Well, in recent years, many — including us — have argued FIFA’s Holy Grail has matched, if not exceeded, the Summer Olympic Games in importance. Soccer (or football for the rest of the world) is the world’s most popular and important sport. More people play soccer than any other sport. More people watch it than any other sport.

Basketball is in the rearview mirror, sitting at No. 2, far enough back that most would argue FIFA should never worry about its leadership advantage. Or should it?

The NBA concludes its best-of-seven final series this month, featuring the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers.

Also this month, FIFA erects soccer’s “tent-pole” for the World Cup. FIFA’s penultimate event. The brightest star. The watched-by-billions from all corners of the globe pinnacle.

Unlike the NBA, which starts the playoffs with 16 teams, FIFA starts June 14 with 32 countries, including little ones like Iceland and Panama. They’ll play 64 games in 11 Russian cities. The world will really care.

A quick refresher on an important difference here. FIFA is an international federation. The NBA is a league. Although both are not-for-profit organizations, FIFA’s members are not-for-profit associations from more than 200 jurisdictions, each with mandates to grow the game in their own nation. The NBA, on the other hand, is composed of 30 for-profit clubs with vested billion-dollar owners. Their mandates are different. Their realities are different.

FIFA is in the spotlight this month with its showcase event.
Photo: getty images

So, what makes the World Cup special?

For starters, it’s one of the few places where the best players in the world’s most popular team sport gather to compete for their country, not their team (a.k.a., their employer). And while Olympic teams can bring three overage players to compete, some feel that FIFA strategically keeps its best players out of the Games (meaning: the IOC’s men’s tournament features primarily U23 players).

Meanwhile, football’s professional circuit spreads top players across multiple premier leagues based in England, France, Spain, Italy and Germany. They compete for (and can afford) the world’s very best talent. And don’t forget UEFA’s Champions League.

However — and this is where we get a bit feisty — we think 2018 will put FIFA’s World Cup brand to the test and create another opportunity for the NBA to gain ground.

First off, the Cup is being held in Russia. While the country is operationally capable, as we saw with the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Russia seems to be struggling with world diplomacy. Its venues may be great but reports suggest many in the former Soviet Union are increasingly distrustful of their country’s leadership.

Secondly, we have to ask if the “new” FIFA is really ready for its close-up? Are FIFA’s new leaders, particularly President Gianni Infantino, the right people for fixing things?

For many years, the FIFA brand has suffered hit after corruption hit. With consistent regularity (or so it seems), a FIFA representative has been released, removed, relegated or reported for various crimes. To make matters worse, this corruption has taken place at the highest levels.

As we wrote a few issues back (regarding the NCAA), sports brands carry some elasticity from self-inflicted turbulence, but constant FIFA-style damage will eventually leave fans less willing to go the extra mile when their trust in governance (and its leadership) is consistently shattered.

Beyond the all-forgiving fans, the reality of compromised leadership is usually felt by multiple stakeholders like sponsors and governments or from new participants and member federations. Translation? It’s been a long time since “trust” was a word used to describe FIFA’s leaders other than in secret “trust fund.”

Perhaps big corrupt organizations are nothing new in our jaded sports industry. It seems hardly a day goes by when some columnist (ourselves included) isn’t throwing rocks at the parties who try to hold leagues and sanctioning bodies together. Almost everything (and sometimes nothing) offends someone somewhere. So FIFA is going to get more negative press.

Granted, it’s a tough time to run a transparent, inclusive, global sporting body, especially a not-for-profit one. But maybe the opposite is possible. Now that everything is much more open, the process for organizations and their stewards should be easier than ever. Hmmm, maybe not.

The third point that puts the 2018 World Cup in the crosshairs is just some plain, old bad luck. Huge surprises on the pitch led to important countries not qualifying for this year’s Cup. Who’s missing? Well, for starters, Italy, Holland, the U.S. and Ireland.

These closely followed titans are popular TV markets and home to wealthy fans who travel. All four are developed television markets as well. There are others, but these four highlight a list of perennial or popular past qualifiers who did not make it.

So, there you have it. On the eve of the 2018 World Cup, FIFA is dealing with a damaged brand, embattled leadership, a potentially controversial host location and some bad luck on who will actually play.

It makes us wonder if 2018 will showcase a declining, damaged brand or whether FIFA will use 2018 as a turning point. Our guess — this is the dirty work we said we’d start — is that FIFA and football will lose ground to basketball and the NBA.

Said another way, June is “showtime” for FIFA if it wants to protect its big lead.

Rick Burton (rhburton@syr.edu) is the David Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. Norm O’Reilly (oreillyn@ohio.edu) is the Richard P. & Joan S. Fox Professor and Sports Admin Department Chair at Ohio University. Their new book, “20 Secrets to Success for NCAA Student Athletes Who Won’t Go Pro,” was published recently by Ohio University Press.