The United States is one of the most backward countries in the world when it comes to playing, understanding and supporting the game of soccer, dubbed by the Portuguese as “The Beautiful Game.” But we sure know how to make an impact on the sport.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice indicted nine officials of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), soccer’s world governing body, along with five corporate executives on corruption charges. The 166-page, 47-count indictment alleges that over a 24-year period the defendants engaged in the crimes of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. The charges detail $150 million in bribes and kickbacks that were used to rig the selection of international soccer tournaments and the award of media and broadcasting contracts.
In a bit of irony not lost on the soccer world, half of the defendants were arrested at a five-star Swiss hotel where they were staying for FIFA’s annual meeting. They now face extradition to the U.S., where, if they are convicted, they could each face decades in prison. But don’t count on it, for reasons detailed below. And in any event, that’s hardly the point. The goal of the years-long federal investigation was to bring operational changes to FIFA at the highest levels, something that the indictment appears to have already set in motion.
You want corruption? How about the vote to grant South Africa the 2010 World Cup? Rigged. The FIFA Executive Committee’s selection of Russia to host the 2018 World Cup? Rigged. Ditto for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Those irregularities may prove to be only the tip of the iceberg after all facts become known.
Unfortunately for the 14 defendants, the Justice Department has already secured guilty pleas from four others connected to the conspiracy, including Charles Blazer the former U.S. representative on the FIFA Executive Committee. After pleading guilty to tax evasion and fraud in 2013, Blazer flipped on other conspirators and reportedly agreed to record incriminating conversations with them.
Each of the gang of 14 has choices to make. The first will be whether they agree to be extradited to the U.S. to face the charges or contest extradition in court. The latter will take time, but there’s no reason to believe the U.S. won’t be successful. The next decision will be whether to cooperate with the investigation – spill their guts on fellow defendants and others who have yet to be indicted – in exchange for more lenient sentences.
Should any of the defendants choose to go to trial, there’s little question the government has the evidence to be successful. This was a deliberate, calculated, strategic investigation that was years in the making. In addition to testimony and taped conversations, prosecutors no doubt had a written trail of evidence prior to making the arrests. The government will take a tough stance against the defendants in part, perhaps, because the U.S. was a contender for both the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments, but was passed over due to the bribes. Those losses fueled allegations that the indictments were political in nature, and perhaps they were. But that hardly absolves FIFA and its executives from wrongdoing.
One interesting aspect of the continuing story is that Sepp Blatter, who has served as president of FIFA for 17 years, was not among the executives indicted despite allegations of corruption that have hounded him for years. But there’s no doubt that the feds had Blatter in their sights. The arrests came two days before his reelection for a fifth term as FIFA president, perfectly timed to cast negative publicity on his campaign and designed to influence the electors. Nevertheless, Blatter was overwhelmingly reelected, further evidence that corruption is systemic in FIFA.
Blatter was defiant in his post-election speech, vehemently denying any knowledge of corruption. However, four days later – after Blazer’s testimony became public – Blatter had a sudden change of heart. He announced that he would be stepping down as soon as his replacement was elected.
Whether we are entering a new era in FIFA, free of graft and corruption, remains to be seen. But one thing is certain. Despite our ignorance of the game, henceforth the U.S. will be acknowledged for making perhaps the biggest impact on the soccer landscape in the history of the sport.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.