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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The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood