Generally speaking, there is a trend with political and public pressure continuing to drive significant changes in white-collar law enforcement throughout the world. In my opinion, it is important for in-house counsel to be on top of things in this area and particularly when it comes to advising our internal clients with the view to mitigate risk. In particular, recent developments in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic have put a lot of pressure on colleagues at the forefront. We deem that it is our duty as in-house counsel to provide practicable legal advice to the business, and at the same time adequately addressing the legal and compliance risks.
Our first aim has always been to help our internal clients and members make decisions that are in line with the applicable regulatory framework. This includes policies relating to ethical conduct such as – in our case – the FIFA Code of Ethics and the FIFA Code of Conduct. We aim to provide them with the knowledge and tools needed to identify legal risks in advance and make decisions that adequately address these risks.
In sports, when it comes to integrity and compliance, I always tell our clients – which include players, referee officials and other stakeholders – that it is usually too late when we need to open investigations into alleged violations of rules safeguarding the integrity of sports. When we have to investigate misconduct, the damage is already done. So, with efficient, proactive and preventative measures, such as training, online awareness campaigns and so on, we can ensure that all those concerned know what the rules are, and are able to avoid – as much as possible – things going wrong. However, when things go wrong, it is also key that we ensure that issues are addressed in a timely and thorough manner and that we bring to justice those who don’t play by the rules and who are responsible for bringing our sport into disrepute.
Football, similar to many other aspects of business life, is not exempt from the risks of bribery and corruption. We have seen that different individuals and companies who have been involved in football have been found guilty, amongst other things, of bribery and corruption. In that respect, it is very important to have the right tools in place, including the right regulations and processes to address risks. Equally, it is important to learn from mistakes that have been made in the past and to avoid making the same mistakes again.
FIFA has undergone a very thorough and comprehensive governance reform process over the past years with the aim of addressing certain deficiencies that were discovered. As an example, we have strengthened and formalised our compliance function. We have further strengthened the system of checks and balances, including the implementation of terms of office, and segregation of powers of the different bodies of the organisation. Also, we have strengthened the function of our audit and compliance committee, which consists mainly of independent members. We have established a confidential reporting system or whistle-blower hotline in order to encourage a culture of speaking up and flagging wrongdoing, as it is discovered. We have established eligibility checks including integrity and background checks for all of FIFA’s committee members. We have further strengthened the processes in the context of the funds we invest to develop the game of football. We have enhanced our processes when we check on the service providers and third party vendors with whom we do business. We have also massively revamped our bidding processes for FIFA competitions, including the FIFA World Cup and the FIFA Women’s World Cup. We have also amended our policies to make them more user-friendly and relevant in everyday business transactions. These are only a few examples, but all this was, amongst other reasons, also done to strengthen our position in terms of anti-corruption and anti-bribery.
When focusing on the game of football, we see that match-fixing and doping are highly complex problems that require very stringent processes. Of course, the actions committed by the perpetrators concerned are also corrupt conduct, and here specifically in the context of sports, such corrupt and illegal actions go against the very essence of the game; the integrity of the sporting competition is destroyed, as is with the case with the use of doping. But what is more, if the unpredictability of the sporting result is jeopardised, the sport is basically deprived of its very essence, which is not to know in advance of a competition who the winner will be. If this element is lost, no one will watch football matches in the stadiums or in front of the TV, and the commercial partners that are helping generate revenue, which is reinvested in the sport, will no longer be interested. It is a vicious circle and we have a paramount responsibility to do whatever we can to best protect the integrity of our game.
This is also why we work with many different stakeholders to address the challenges of doping and match manipulation and why we are also dedicating a lot of resources and also expertise and effort to address these challenges.
When it comes to compliance and due diligence, we as an organisation have enacted many different initiatives, processes and tools. For example, our code of conduct serves as a one-stop shop; it provides direct access to the code in all different languages, and it provides for different and direct links to relevant directives, training materials and templates, including contract templates. We also have in person training, for example, we organised a compliance summit specifically tailored to the needs and challenges of our 211 members associations, the football confederations and other stakeholders. In fact, we are currently planning our next compliance summit which will be held online in Autumn.
Overall, when looking into the future, I personally am convinced that legal tech and artificial intelligence will be highly relevant and beneficial for in-house counsel. We have already evolved quite significantly, compared to where we stood five years ago. But, I believe that we are still in the early stages and that the technological revolution for in-house counsel is just beginning. What I am convinced of is that we as lawyers and in-house counsel need to be open to innovation and technology, amongst many other things to enhance our risk management.