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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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt