Fifa has traditionally behaved as if it is not subject to the normal rules. For decades suspicions of corruption have dogged world football's governing body. But Fifa has always refused to enact reform, or to open its doors to public scrutiny. It has been able to ignore such complaints because it owned the prize that many national football federations coveted and which the wealthiest advertisers in the world were desperate to be part of: the World Cup. The result has been monumental complacency from Fifa, and its long-serving president, Sepp Blatter.
But that complacency finally came under significant challenge yesterday. Major sponsors – Coca-Cola, BP, Visa, Adidas and Emirates – expressed their unhappiness at the swamp of allegation and counter-allegation into which Fifa has been plunged lately.
The Football Associations of England and Scotland have called for the presidential elections, which are scheduled for today, to be postponed and for an independent body to be appointed to supervise reforms. Sadly, Fifa can safely ignore the FA and the SFA. But what it cannot ignore is the disquiet of its paymasters. The call for comprehensive reform gives Fifa an excuse to do what it ought to have done long ago.
What Fifa needs is an administrative revolution. As the recent report of James Dingemans QC for the FA makes plain, there is a gaping loophole in Fifa's own governance code in that "gifts or other advantages" can be funnelled to the family members of the Fifa executives who vote on which country should be awarded the World Cup.
The reform effort must surely begin with the departure of Fifa's president. Even if there turns out to be nothing in the accusations against Mr Blatter levelled by the suspended vice-president, Jack Warner, and the head of Asian football, Mohamed Bin Hammam, he has presided over a period during which trust in the ethics of the Fifa executive committee has utterly collapsed.
Fifa urgently needs to understand how it looks to the outside world. Notwithstanding the bribery allegations, what does it say when Mr Blatter today stands unopposed for re-election, after being at the helm of the organisation since 1998? What impression does it create when the first challenger to Mr Blatter in nine years swiftly found himself under investigation for corruption? The Fifa executive committee looks more like a medieval court than a 21st-century governing body of the world's most popular sport.
Without a change in leadership, the reputation of Fifa will continue to sink. Fifa members are playing with fire if they refuse to address this collapse in trust and do what is necessary to restore it. It is not impossible that national football governing bodies will break away and stage their own tournament. It would, of course, be a disaster if the next World Cup came around with the international football world split. But it would be a disaster worth risking for the prize of rescuing the reputation of global football governance.
The idea that graft is inevitable in international sporting organisations since they must comprise nations where corruption is endemic is nothing but a counsel of despair. The public, who ultimately fund these organisations through their taxes, licence fees and ticket purchases, have a right to expect better. And improvement is not impossible. The International Olympic Committee made governance reforms after its own bribery scandal in the late 1990s (although much more remains to be done on that front).
The governors of international sporting events need to be held to the same standards of ethical conduct as those demanded of star athletes. Corruption is just as unacceptable in the conference room as it is on the field of play.