Coca-Cola is a Fifa sponsor. Photo: Getty
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The company you keep: how the Fifa debacle will affect its most valuable sponsors

High-profile brands backing Fifa will face a reputational nightmare if they simply choose talk over action.

They say you can tell a lot about a person from the company they keep. The same is undoubtedly true of business.

Last week’s re-election of Sepp Blatter was as much of a disaster for Fifa’s sponsors as it was for football.

And while the Fifa President evoked the image of Fifa as a ship ("we will bring it back ashore, we will bring it back to the beach"), right now that vessel looks more like the Titanic. It has been hit by a massive reputational iceberg and its sponsors look like doomed passengers.

But the global giants footing the bill for Fifa’s largesse are no prisoners. They have choices, and it is time they took a stand. It’s time for these brands to separate themselves from the toxic activity of Fifa. A failure to do so will inevitably cause irreparable damage in the eyes of the consumer. 

The election of Blatter can be seen as a vote to maintain the status quo. He has had over 16 years to sort the problems dogging Fifa. It stretches incredulity to the limit to believe that the organisation has found its reforming champion with the decision it has taken.

As the attorney general Loretta Lynch has said, reiterated by FA chief Greg Dyke, this vote – and the indictments of the nine officials – is just the beginning of Fifa's problems.

It all adds up to total trauma for the businesses backing Fifa. Their great hope was that their sabre-rattling ahead of the vote might have had some effect on the result – that a different president would move attention back on to the event of the World Cup itself. But instead, the Zurich re-election means the spotlight falls firmly upon the sponsors to see if they will do the right thing.

Three of the sponsors – McDonald’s, Coca Cola and Visa – have just been ranked as among the ten most valuable brands in the world in the BrandZ Global Report 2015, which was published last week. They need to not only take care of that reputation, but take action to show that business can be a force for good.

“To be more progressive around our social purpose in order to deepen our relationships with communities on the issues that matter to them,” said Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s new CEO, in a recent interview. 

As McDonald's is a flagship Fifa sponsor, his words will only matter if belief is backed by determined action. Thus far, its pledge to “continue to monitor the situation very closely” looks insipid, because it is insipid. If Easterbrook’s vision can be distilled down to simply doing the right thing, then he must act. The Fifa debacle has underlined the importance of the need for brands to do more than just say what they think their customers want to hear. 

These brands are reputed to have invested £130m over four years, and they have a vested interest in making the World Cup a success. Their sponsorship has spearheaded the growth of Fifa into a multi-billion dollar empire. If they step away, they risk being sued and they risk opening the door for competitors to take their place.

But their investment might seem like small change if the stench engulfing Fifa contaminates them. These businesses want to be seen as purpose driven, beacons of integrity, a force for the fans. If they do nothing, they will end up being judged by the company they keep. The reason why a corporation sponsors sport is to get the affirmation and approval of the consumer. And in the court of public opinion, their ongoing involvement with Fifa will be seen as tacit approval of its practices.

In truth, there can be no excuse for the likes of Coca-Cola to express surprise at Fifa’s bad behaviour given the stack of recent evidence put forward by The Sunday Times, Panorama and almost every other news outlet. Regardless of what the courts rule, there can be no doubting the hearts and minds of the consumer: Fifa's reputation is rotten.

This latest instalment of the Fifa debacle only underlines the need and importance for brands to be resolute about the company they keep.

Michael Hayman is co-author of Mission: How the best in business break through, and co-founder of the campaigns firm Seven Hills.

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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution