After years of deliberations and resisting the use of any sort of technology to officiate football matches, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the pre-eminent lawmaking body of the game, recently approved new systems to help determine if a ball crosses the goal line.
Many have received this news with surprise. Both IFAB and FIFA (International Federation of Association Football) have been slow to adapt and institute much-needed changes within the game. Football has changed dramatically over the last decades, as evidenced by the higher physiological capacity of the players. Unfortunately, the rules of the game have not evolved alongside these physiological changes. Even worse is the sclerotic system that is responsible for changing the rules of the sport.
IFAB and FIFA work symbiotically. They are intertwined and have been sharing power with different arrangements for almost 100 years. IFAB, founded in 1886, is the game’s lawmaking body, composed of representatives from each of the United Kingdom’s pioneering football associations—England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland—and FIFA. The make-up of IFAB is heavily criticized by many because representation within IFAB is limited to a handful of countries. Deliberations within the organization must be approved by at least 6 votes. Basically, FIFA has 4 votes on behalf of all its 209 affiliated member associations. The other 4 privileged football associations of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland each have 1 vote.
We could say FIFA is complicit in the current arrangement. I doubt the ordinary fan is even aware of the existence of IFAB. Even fewer people know exactly who FIFA’s votes within the FIFA–IFAB nexus represent. It really is just a power grab for the FIFA chiefs and their cronies, and it is a true reflection of the arrogance, lack of accountability and transparency, and undemocratic tendencies that surround the governing body of the most important game in the world.
One way to illustrate the magnitude of the unrepresentative nature of IFAB is to briefly compare its structure with that of the UN Security Council, which diplomats and scholars all over the world deem to be a model of poor representation.
The Security Council has a total of 15 members. Of those, 5—China, France, Russia, the UK, and the US—are permanent members with the power to veto any proposal decided by the 9 votes that are needed. The other 10 non-permanent, elected members have 2-year terms. The United Nations has a total of 193 members, which raises the question: How is it possible that 5 countries have so much clout and power in the realm of international relations?
If you think representation in the Security Council is unjust and flawed, wait until you hear this: FIFA, with a total of 209 members, has more affiliations than the United Nations. Nevertheless, the 4 countries within IFAB essentially decide, for all the other members, behind closed doors with the top officials of FIFA, what changes are going to be made in the game.
At least defenders of the Security Council’s structure can justify its current make-up by pointing to the hard power of the elite 5. But what kind of justification is possible for IFAB’s current structure? What kind of power do England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland exert in international football?
At any given time, England can barely qualify for the World Cup, and they last won it almost 50 years ago. In juxtaposition, Brazil, who has a record 5 World Cup titles, is not a part of IFAB and therefore is excluded from the decision-making process. Other football behemoths like Italy, France, Argentina and Germany also have no say in the direct decision-making process involving potential changes to the game’s laws. I would bet money that if those 5 countries got together and decided to boycott FIFA, unless they were given representation within IFAB, they would bring the whole system to its knees! How is it possible that countries like Wales, who has qualified for the World Cup only once, and Northern Ireland, who has qualified a meager 3 times, have more say in the decision-making process than true football powerhouses?
That this actually is the case defies common sense. It is insulting, humiliating, and an affront to our sense of dignity and equal representation. It leaves us incredulous in the face of the facts and inspires us to search for clues about the roots of the current model. We may have to dig deep into the annals of history to understand the current absurdity.
According to Professor Roger Abrams, a sports law expert at Northeastern University, organizations such FIFA and IFAB have a history of being unaccountable for their actions and of having an entitlement culture from within that makes those who govern believe they actually own the sport.
In a phone conversation, Dr. Peter Alegi, an African history professor at Michigan State University, told me the British have a deep-rooted belief that they are the custodians of the rules of the game and may be eager to hold onto the current IFAB structure because it may be one of the last avenues they have to maintain a high-profile position in global culture.
When I asked Dr. Paul Darby, a respected sociologist at the University of Ulster, about the roots of this hubristic attitude, he told me that there has always been a sense of arrogance within these organizations (FIFA and IFAB), which goes back many decades.
“This arrogance was exemplified by the fact that for the first 70 years or so of its existence, FIFA’s northern European constituency viewed the world body’s growing African membership through a colonial lens and treated them as if they were not deserving of the opportunities to be part of the FIFA family,” Dr. Darby said.
Dr. Darby described the problem as so pervasive that Stanley Rous, the president of FIFA from 1961 to 1974, tried to preserve the place of the South African Football Association within FIFA, despite considerable international pressure, particularly from the African continent, to have them expelled.
“It was actually president Joao Havelange who played an instrumental role in making the organization somewhat more representative globally and in providing greater inclusion in the world game for Africa. In the lead-up to his election as FIFA president in 1974, Havelange went as far as promising the African nations that he would continue to exclude and resist the re-entry of the South African association for as long as they continued to practice apartheid in football,” Dr. Darby said.
It is clear that FIFA only began to move in the direction of a true international organization with the leadership of Joao Havelange. Nevertheless, changes to the structure of IFAB have still not taken place and in the meantime seem to be far off the table.
“The composition of IFAB is definitely not reflective of the current football behemoths that dominate international play. Mathematically it just does not compute,” Dr. Darby added.
It seems evident that Great Britain’s current influence in the game is a throwback to, or really reflective of, a very distant past when Britain had a dominant position in the world as a major colonial power and consequently in the organization of the game.
Clearly both the UN Security Council and IFAB structures are outdated and ill suited to deal with the demands of a new international scene that is characterized by a multipolar world order.
We are left wondering how the current football powerhouses can be such passive and deferential participants in a relationship that is medieval, unjust, non-inclusive, and rooted in the vestiges of colonialism. At this point, the Queen Mother may be the only one applauding. But then again, change may only come when she decides to issue an edict to all the current football powerhouses: get off your knees, peasants.
Ricardo Guerra is a Brazilian journalist who served as Head Exercise Physiologist for the Egyptian National Football Team in 2002 and as Exercise Physiologist for the Qatar National Football Team in 2008.