FI, FA, fo, fum
I smell the blood of a Swiss man. And an American. And a Trinidadian. And an Irishman. And the list goes on, and on…
This week’s implosion of FIFA – the world governing body of soccer – has been fascinating to observe. Way from the outside, I should add, as I am a committed abstainer when it comes to all sports. The athletic skill and achievement of football has never engaged me, but the human drama emerging from Zurich, pulsing around the world, has me entranced. I have not known the like since Tonya Harding connived to win figure-skating glory by foul means, or Captain Roy Keane decided to quit Ireland’s World Cup team in Saipan, days before the 2002 tournament began.
Morality and malfeasance are eternal attention grabbers, and FIFA now commands the world’s focus like no errant celebrity ever could.
And why? Well, because it matters. FIFA is charged with organising, promoting and caring for the beautiful game – a game that brings pleasure, health, entertainment, glory, connection and hope to billions of people.
FIFA is the brand behind one of the biggest ideas in the world. And it’s a brand in crisis. So the pressing question for these pages is this: what can we learn from a marketing point of view?
The lesson that comes most clearly to me is a rather basic one: recognising the difference between what we assert and what is actually true. In short, the lesson is the danger of being caught in a lie.
Brands come up against this quite frequently (although clearly, the consequences are rarely life and death). Romanced by the dreams spun in advertising, they begin to believe their own PR. They become seduced into believing that just because we say it’s true, means it is true.
When UK retailer Morrison’s invites me to ‘Make Christmas special’, I wonder what planet they’re on. After all, they’ve spent the rest of the year telling me they’re making life cheaper.
When Tesco in Ireland talks about their natural obsession for being ‘home grown in Ireland‘ it feels like overstatement to hide their apparent embarrassment for not being Irish. Although they substantiate it on one level (Irish farmers), on a meta-level it’s so NOT true. I’m just not buying it.
Soccer is a game of grace, skill and teamwork, founded on the principle of fair play. FIFA has, through the years, placed enormous emphasis on fairness all-round – suggesting that it is the essential context in which the beauty of the game emerges. Fair Play has been a core programme with youth since the 1990s – a Fair Play banner being an essential part of FIFA’s pageantry.
Goalline technology finally arrived in 2013, driven by a need for objective, transparent Fair Play. Sure, players will naturally seek to gain advantage – by fair means and foul – but FIFA’s role was to rise above it, and champion fairness over all.
But fairness was an empty assertion – a vain drum on which they tapped ‘crude rhythms for bears to dance to’.
FIFA, it transpires, never believed in fairness at all – and manifestly acted in the most corrupt and unfair manner at every level of its operations. The brand, vested with a mission serving billions around the world, has betrayed its public and is demonstrably a lie. There is no choice but for FIFA to be fully dismantled and only then fully reborn.
I was once in the company of FIFA’s president, Sepp Blatter.
It was in 1996, and I was representing one of the title sponsors of FIFA Futsal – the world indoor football championships. Blatter was present for the lottery to decide who-would-play-whom. I witnessed him, in an empty hall, go through his paces in rehearsal, surrounded by staffers. He looked up at a spread-sheet display on-screen, listing the teams whose fate would soon be determined by the draw.
‘Why aren’t these countries set out in alphabetical order?’ he asked, in a clipped Swiss-German accent. The staffers scurried to rectify this small detail, which could be construed as some sort of oblique favouritism.
The impression I had was of someone powerful, clear, impatient, thorough and fair.
Clearly something has changed in the intervening 19 years.
Sepp Blatter will have plenty of time to reflect on how his high ideals of fairness for FIFA became undone, and how his aspirations for beautiful football would become empty, ugly assertions, worthy of the world’s censure.
Brian McIntyre. Orchard Brand Agency. 2015.