That One Time FIFA Got Something Right? The Transformation of BiH’s Football Governance

Following a week of scandals, corruption allegetions and general turmoil, can FIFA still offer a positive lesson in anything? Laurence Cooley and Jasmin Mujanović argue that it did in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

In the past week, arguably the worst in living memory for the governing body of international football, much ink has been spilled on the “culture of corruption” inside of FIFA’s gilded halls. Despite Sapp Blatter’s re-election to FIFA’s presidency for a fifth consecutive term, dramatic changes at an institution the comedian John Oliver once called a “comically grotesque organisation” seem imminent and unavoidable. In the coming “house cleaning”, however, care must be taken to avoid losing sight of one of FIFA’s (and UEFA’s) unquestionable successes: the almost revolutionary transformation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s institutions of football governance.

Between 2002, when Bosnia’s post-war ethnically defined football federations merged into a single federation, and 2011, Bosnian football was governed under a power-sharing arrangement that resembled that of the country’s complex political institutions. Under this arrangement, the football federation (the Nogometni/Fudbalski Savez Bosne i Hercegovine; N/FSBiH) was headed by a tripartite presidency – one president for each of the three constituent peoples (Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats) defined in the constitution that was established by the Dayton Agreement in 1995. What was initially intended to be an interim arrangement lasted for nine years. During this time, as the Bosnian novelist Aleksandar Hemon argues, “the three presidents could barely stand to be in the same room together, even if the arrangement generously allowed for graft, corruption, and baroque stupidity”.

This corruption manifested itself in a number of high-profile cases. In November 2009, the former secretary general of the N/FSBiH Munib Ušanović and marketing secretary Miodrag Kureš were jailed for five years apiece for tax evasion and abuse of office between 2001 and 2006. In February 2010, news broke that a Bosnian referee had been identified as a participant in what was possibly the biggest match-fixing scandal in European history. The referee had accepted a payment of €40,000 from the leader of a match-fixing ring to ensure that two goals were scored in the second half of a World Cup qualifier between Liechtenstein and Finland, and awarded Finland a highly dubious penalty to deliver this result. Three more Bosnian referees were found guilty of match fixing in August 2011. Corruption appeared to be endemic in Bosnian football and its federation.

By this time, fans of the Bosnian national team had been protesting against corruption in the football federation for some time. The BH Fanaticos group, formed in 2000 to follow the national team at away matches, positioned themselves as a firm with a political stance, declaring “Rat savezu!”, or “[We declare] war on the FA!”. In March 2007, they famously disrupted a match against Norway in Oslo by throwing flares on to the pitch, delaying play for an hour as a protest against corruption in the N/FSBiH. In 2011, “despite [FIFA’s] own steadfast commitment to graft, corruption, and stupidity”, to quote Hemon again, the sport’s international governing body intervened to help tackle Bosnian football’s corruption problem. Once pressure from fans had been accompanied by pressure from FIFA, the results were almost immediate.

FIFA, along with UEFA, made its first serious demands for reform of the N/FSBiH, including the replacement of its tripartite presidency by a single president, in October 2010. When these reforms were not forthcoming by the April 2011 deadline set by FIFA and UEFA, they suspended the Bosnian national team and all club sides from international and European competition and imposed a so-called “normalisation committee” on the federation. This committee was chaired by popular former player Ivica Osim and was charged with reforming the federation. The committee achieved this task within two months, and the suspension was lifted. The normalisation committee remained in place until December 2012, when Elvedin Begić was elected as the first sole president in the national federation’s history. The following year, the Bosnia and Herzegovina national team qualified for its first World Cup appearance.

As well as this story of reform, the Bosnian case also provides a counter to some of the perceived problems with FIFA’s funding of football infrastructure projects in less wealthy footballing nations. Much of the focus of the current corruption scandal has been on how Sepp Blatter has built a “power base” in developing states, buying the support of African and Asian federations through the funding of new football facilities under the Goal programme launched in 1999. In Bosnia, Goal funding contributed to the construction of a new regional technical centre in Zenica, opened in October 2013. The need for improved infrastructure, particularly that for the development of young players, is very clear in Bosnia. The much-lauded Bosnian national team that qualified for the 2014 World Cup was, in the words of football journalist Jonathan Wilson, largely “a team of the diaspora”. As the generation of players who were displaced by the war as youngsters ages, Bosnia cannot rely solely on players born to Bosnian parents in the diaspora wanting to represent the national team of their parents, and the country will have to start developing (and retaining) world-class players in order to remain competitive. The construction of the Zenica training centre was also an important reward from FIFA and UEFA for the progress Bosnia made towards reforming its football federation and rooting out corruption.

Initiatives such as the Goal programme are also an important counterpoint to the otherwise heavily neo-liberal character of FIFA, and are redolent of the more “social democratic character” of UEFA, showing commitment to egalitarianism, redistribution and international solidarity. As David Goldblatt has argued, “FIFA, for all its faults, has sought to transfer some of the wealth of football in the rich world”, and it is important that this redistribution does not fall victim to the transformation of the governing body that must now surely follow. In fact, as a former president of the Zambian football association has suggested, rather than being abolished, programmes such as Goal need to be better institutionalised and taken out of the hands of powerful individuals. Blatter’s close association with these funding schemes offers significant opportunities for patronage, and national associations that benefit from Goal fear that if he is voted out of office, the money will dry up. The solution, as Goldblatt and others argue, is not a withdrawal of support for internationalisation and a reassertion of European dominance over the governance of world football, but rather the true democratisation of the game.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, at least, where constructive change is often slow to materialise, it was exactly FIFA’s democratic vision that helped fundamentally transform the political economy of the sport for the better. Challenges remain in Bosnia as nationalism, violence, and homophobia continue to mar local football. Yet FIFA’s involvement in Bosnia has doubtlessly been positive and a genuine model for the development of the game and, arguably, even of good governance practices more broadly in developing and transition states across the world. The FIFA that emerges from the current corruption scandal needs to build on this model by supporting fans’ efforts to reform the governance of football and providing transparent support for the game’s development outside of the traditional Western European powers.


Laurence Cooley teaches in the International Development Department at the University of Birmingham. He has an MA from Queen’s University Belfast and a PhD from Birmingham, where his thesis examined the European Union’s approach to conflict resolution in the Western Balkans. A former volunteer at the Centre for Peace, Non-violence and Human Rights in Osijek, Croatia, his current research focuses on the promotion of power sharing and the governance of sport in divided societies. Find him on Twitter at @laurence_cooley.

Jasmin Mujanović is a PhD candidate in Political Science at York University and a Visiting Scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. A Fellow at the Emerging Democracies Institute and a frequent Balkan affairs analyst, his work has appeared in the New York TimesAl JazeeraopenDemocracy, and Balkan Insight among a host of other media outlets. His Twitter handle is @JasminMuj.

Cover photo credit: AP

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