The World Cup: A History of Allegations, Branding and Crises

The first World Cup stadium in Uruguay, July 1930   Photo by FIFA.

The first World Cup stadium in Uruguay, July 1930 Photo by FIFA.

Something that has everyone’s attention lately is the sporting event of the summer - The FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) World Cup. The perfect time for viewing parties, celebrations and uniting, right? Well, for most people, absolutely.

The FIFA World Cup is one of the world’s largest sporting tournaments and sponsorship platforms, reaching audiences all around the world. Every four years, FIFA selects a country to host the month-long games. Russia is the 2018 host; Qatar has been announced as the organizer for 2022, and as of June 13, 2018, The United States, Canada and Mexico will jointly host the 2026 tournament. With an estimated half of the world’s population following this much anticipated event, brands do not want to miss out on this lucrative marketing opportunity. Some of the top companies that currently partner with the World Cup include Coca-Cola, Visa, Sony and Adidas.

World Cup 2014 Brazuca replica match balls by   Adidas   Photo   by Getty Images.

World Cup 2014 Brazuca replica match balls by Adidas Photo by Getty Images.

While football (or soccer, not to be confused with American football) has shown its positive impact on the world time and time again, the sport’s  world governing body FIFA has been accused of bribery, corruption scandals relating to the awarding of tournaments, with several of its officials charged in international investigations. Additionally, FIFA has been accused of using its international clout to push host nations around and of limiting the ability of local economies to profit from the influx of sponsorships and brands. With so much controversy, how does a non-profit such as FIFA maintain their reputation and stronghold over their avid fan base?

In 2003, the Brazilian government banned alcohol from stadiums due to high death rates; however, Budweiser insisted on the right to sell beer, demanding that it must be enshrined in a World Cup law. Being a big FIFA sponsor and having the support of General Secretary Jerome Valcke, the pressure was on for Brazil to comply.

Alcoholic drinks are part of the FIFA World Cup, so we’re going to have them. Excuse me if I sound a bit arrogant but that’s something we won’t negotiate.
— General Secretary Jerome Valcke

In May 2012, after several meetings with FIFA authorities, the Brazilian government approved the “Budweiser bill”,   a temporary World-Cup related bill lifting the country’s ban and allowing beer sales in soccer stadiums. Without a doubt, the amendment stirred up controversy, yet was indicative power. Many spectators believed that FIFA had “pressured” Brazil into implementing this new law and public safety was being overlooked. Last Week Tonight host John Oliver expressed his jokes and claims in a 13 minute rant, garnering over 15 million views.

FIFA was recently investigated by the U.S. Justice Department. Near the end of May 2015, fourteen people were accused by the FBI of wire fraud and money laundering. The investigation lasted several years and ended with a total of seven FIFA officials arrested on suspicion of receiving $150 million in bribes.  Not long after, Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, announced his resignation as a result of the scandal – per the demands of the organization’s leading sponsors at the time (Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa and Budweiser).

FIFA President Sepp Blatter resigns, June 2, 2015   Photo by Vox. 

FIFA President Sepp Blatter resigns, June 2, 2015 Photo by Vox. 

FIFA needs profound restructuring. Although members have given me the new mandate, this mandate does not seem to be supported by everyone. We will hold an extraordinary conference as soon as possible. A new president will be elected.
— Blatter

Clearly FIFA’s top corporate partners like Coca-Cola and Sony had begun to see a serious reputational risk in their continued association with FIFA. FIFA’s ethical values started to become questionable, which started to disappoint their sponsors. After these scandals generated a large amount of buzz in the media, top-tier sponsors such as Visa, considered withdrawing their support and voiced public opposition to the organization’s widely reported corruption. “Our sponsorship has always focused on supporting the teams, enabling a great fan experience, and inspiring communities to come together and celebrate the spirit of competition and personal achievement – and it is important that FIFA makes changes now, so that the focus remain on these going forward,” Visa said in a statement.

Other sponsors like Emirates and Johnson&Johnson sought to cut ties entirely after their contracts expired, referring to FIFA as a “toxic” organization huge blow to FIFA’s finances.

FIFA made contingency plans replacing these ex-sponsors with other brands like Samsung or Qatar Airways, and remaining sponsors have sought to focus on their relationship with the “glamour” of the World Cup and audience engagement campaigns rather than with the FIFA brand. Plus, if brands were to terminate their agreements, it may cost as much as the entire sponsorship deal.

Companies like Budweiser received negative publicity from sticking with FIFA; however, Budweiser took advantage of this opportunity to spin the story. Oliver, in specific, challenged FIFA, stating he would call their Bud Light Lime “champagne” and chug one on air if Blatter was forced from the presidency. Budweiser’s response?

“We expect all of our partners to maintain strong ethical standards and operate with transparency.”

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With Blatter out of the presidency, Budweiser received major positive publicity as Oliver came through with his promise and downed the lime-flavored lager on his show along with a “shout out” on Twitter. Bud Light responded to the tweet, “cheers to a man of his word.”

After the “Last Week Tonight” segment, online activity around the Bud Light Lime brand soared. Even though the comedian did not favor the actual drink, the association with Mr. Oliver allowed the company to redirect attention from the FIFA scandals and into a more positive light. Overall, FIFA’s sponsors began to rise again once Blatter stepped down in order for new leadership to occur.

Knowledge in crisis communications is a valuable resource in efforts to recover from a scandal, and the PR industry can learn a thing or two from FIFA’s history of allegations and its following impacts. Amidst it all, the World Cup has, for the most part, overcome and rebuilt its reputation. The long recovery process has made the organization’s “biggest crisis" seem like a minor bump in the road. Allegations, brands and crises were all apart of FIFA’s history and has shaped the powerful organization into what it is today. Regardless of FIFA’s controversial past, the audience remains: soccer fans will continue to follow the popular tournament as they cheer on their favorite teams, critics like Oliver will remain conflicted between FIFA’s intentions and love for the sport, and others who still refuse to support FIFA for its corrupt actions.