THE BEAUTIFUL GAME OF ASSOCIATION FOOTBALL (SOCCER) HAS BROUGHT out the ugly side of smallness in global politics. In mid-2015, a long-running corruption scandal finally engulfed the sport's governing body, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). In dawn raids at its international congress in Zurich, the Swiss authorities, at the behest of the US Department of Justice, arrested a number of key executives, with extradition proceedings beginning against others, and charges including racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering laid against them. Intriguingly, many of the key protagonists are from (very) small states, and even tiny nonindependent territories: the trio of Austin "Jack" Warner of Trinidad and Tobago, Mohammed bin Hammam of Qatar, and Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands all became influential power brokers, overshadowing their counterparts from the larger countries that comprise the traditional heartlands of the sport and, indeed, those that commonly exert control over other global governance institutions. Moreover, Qatar--a country with little soccer heritage, which has never qualified for a senior men's World Cup, with few stadia of requisite quality and an unwelcoming summer climate--won the rights to host the 2022 tournament, provoking an intense backlash and further consolidating suspicions of corruption. (1)
We explain how these actors came to wield disproportionate influence within FIFA, and why this case matters for wider debates in global governance. Serious work on international sporting bodies has been hitherto dominated by literature in sports studies, rather than international relations and its related fields. In this specialist domain, the actions of small states are rarely given close attention. (2) Thus, by combining analysis of a neglected site of political action with an often marginalized group of underresearched actors, as well as deploying an analytical approach grounded in international studies, we offer a novel interpretation of the role of small states within global governance and, in so doing, highlight the enduring trade-off that exists between democracy and legitimacy that is typified by FIFA.
The argument unfolds in five sections, building the theoretical and empirical accounts in tandem. First, we reflect on gaps in the existing literature that our account seeks to help fill. Second, we ask "who governs soccer?" and substantiate the argument that small-state sporting bureaucrats have often outmaneuvered the bigger, more structurally imposing, players. Third, we discuss the contextual factors that facilitated this outcome: leveraging of superior numbers and the unique governance structures of soccer. Fourth, we consider the agential dimension: the diplomacy that allowed them to successfully navigate the labyrinthine politics of FIFA and, building on this analysis of how power operates in a path-dependent way within global soccer governance, we analyze the ascendancy of two very small states, Qatar and Trinidad and Tobago, something that ultimately presaged the contemporary crisis. While our conclusion touches on the prospects for reform of FIFA itself, our key insights focus on the wider academic value of taking small states and sports more seriously within international studies in general, and global governance in particular.
Bringing Soccer and Small States into Global Governance
Given the economic and cultural significance of soccer, it is perhaps surprising that academic analysis has been mainly limited to quantifying the costs and benefits of the game itself, with specific reference to the legacies for tournament host countries, or dealing with questions of sports management concerning the extension of greater accountability and transparency with a mind toward achieving better governance in practice. (3) These themes have become particularly accentuated in light of the repeated scandals that have hit FIFA since, as Roger Pielke has documented extensively, loudly publicized reform efforts have fallen short of the declared goals. (4) Important as much of this specialized work is, including technical exercises such as creating benchmarking indicators and assessment tools, (5) it comes at the expense of exploring deeper critical questions problematizing the international politics of soccer.
Operating in an environment that Michael Mrkonjic calls "a closed, self-governing network with its own rules and regulations," failures of governance go beyond technical problem solving. (6) What is more, this has been intensified by the contemporary commercialization of soccer and the huge amounts of money that now flow into the game. (7) FIFA--akin to the International Olympic Committee (IOC)--has regularly fought back against charges of corruption by concerted maneuvers to maintain its autonomy. (8) The European Union (EU), because of its extensive jurisdictional competence in labor and competition law, has exerted a degree of leverage over FIFA--in turn generating a small but significant amount of research on the part of sports management and EU scholars--but the meaningful effects on soccer governance have remained limited. (9) As Henk-Erik Meier and Borja Garcia note, FIFA has stymied numerous attempts by European governments to regulate their domestic sporting sectors more tightly, by deploying its privately held monopolistic control over both the regulation and organization of international soccer. (10) Participants cannot seek redress and shelter in alternative regimes when governance fails because no competing set of soccer rules and competitions, governed by a different body, exists." Moreover, as a private venture that "attributes to itself these powers, FIFA works to maintain its autonomy and independence from public surveillance, thus rendering it very different from conventional global governance institutions that are actually composed of and by states themselves. (12) Sports organizations remain, to quote Pielke, "not governmental, not intergovernmental, not corporations and not international bodies like the United Nations" and this renders them intrinsically difficult to hold to account. (13)
This autonomous status also helps to explain why they have rarely been taken seriously within international relations. As Jason Sharman has suggested, there are distinct "perils of gigantism" associated with the relentless focus on the "big five" institutions of global governance: the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, the EU, and the World Trade Organization (WTO). (14) Not only are these bodies relatively few in number compared to the myriad sites where international diplomacy actually occurs--therefore taking up a disproportionate amount of academic analysis--but they also potentially skew our understanding of these processes as the other 99.9 percent of the thousands of diverse extant international organizations (IOs) do not have the same powers of financial, legal, or military coercion. To be sure, FIFA is quite far from being "gigantic" in classic international relations terms. Yet significantly, it has a larger membership than even the UN and is evidently a site of political contestation from which we can learn much despite its being peripheral in terms of its impact on the high politics between major states.
Peripherality has also traditionally been central to small-state discourse and praxis. Small states have long positioned themselves as the guardians of the core of a positive normative image of global governance, contrasting democratic principles of equality with the special privileges granted to a few big powers in the UN Security Council and the international financial institutions (IFIs) as well as newer fora such as the Group of 20 (G-20), from which they are excluded. (15) Small states have also long been marginalized analytically in international relations: according to Vaughan Lewis, they are generally seen through the realist perspective as simply "irritants." (16) And beyond the international relations mainstream, despite some notable exceptions, they are still most commonly viewed as lacking in traditional forms of power and, in many cases, as weak, dependent, or vulnerable, with these distinct concepts frequently and problematically conflated. (17) In the best of the small-state literature, though--and particularly so in the more critical parts of international political economy (IPE)--it is recognized that they do embody alternative forms of agency and can exercise novel forms of power effectively, especially through an ability to skillfully leverage norms, rules, and nontraditional forms of support from nonstate actors. (18)
The FIFA case highlights these supportive conditions, in that the institution is highly representative, according smaller actors disproportionate influence at the expense of larger countries that in structural terms have a far bigger investment in soccer. This is not to ignore, of course, the power brokers located in the major countries. Several of the most contentious figures--such as Chuck Blazer of the United States or Michel Platini of France--enjoyed great influence in their regional associations and rose to positions of prominence on FIFA's Executive Committee. Rather, what needs showcasing is that representatives from small states gained significant amounts of influence too, well out of proportion to their country's sporting prowess (and, in many cases, financial investment) in the game. This requires some explanation, as there is no reason why studying small states--and particularly non-Western ones--or small institutions such as FIFA through the lens of global governance is either more parochial or less relevant than the dominant (and sometimes problematic) trend in international studies toward "the big." (19) This deficiency is compounded because ignoring small IOs is even less justifiable than ignoring small states. For as Sharman puts it, "While...