The United States has never won the World Cup, and for decades we have been considered a second-rate soccer culture--the U.S. squad is currently ranked 28th in the world. But, by golly, the U.S. rule of law, and more important the enforcement of it, can indeed be world class and reach far beyond U.S. shores. This is what seven members of Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), soccer's ruling body, learned in Zurich when, at the behest of the feds, they were hauled in by Swiss cops at their posh lakeside hotel to answer a 47-count indictment unsealed in Brooklyn, New York.
The indictment alleges racketeering, wire fraud, and money-laundering conspiracies, among other charges related to the world's most popular sport and its greatest event, the World Cup. In the U.S., four sports marketing executives were charged with paying more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to get media and marketing rights to FIFA soccer tournaments, including the World Cup and the Gold Cup, which has been played in the U.S.
Those arrested in Zurich had gathered to attend FIFA's annual meeting, where the organization's imperious president, Sepp Blatter, had been expected to be reelected for a fifth term. Blatter was not charged.
For decades, Blatter and company have managed to sweep enough allegations of corruption under the rug at FIFA headquarters in Lausanne to build another alp. But this mountain of reprehension came crashing down in part because the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) did business in the U.S. Jeffrey Webb and Jack Warner, the current and former CONCACAF presidents, respectively, were among those indicted. Chuck Blazer, the former longtime CONCACAF general secretary, had previously pleaded guilty and has been cooperating with the feds in the investigation.
Think of Blatter as the unholy pope of football. Although he isn't the head of any nation, he travels with head-of-state status and rules FIFA's 209-member body as a potentate. Blatter's power doesn't come from soccer's powers, such as Germany or England. In FIFA's organization, every nation's football association (FA) has one vote, whatever that nation's size or soccer relevance. Curacao is just as mighty as Brazil in this world. So Blatter has showered millions of dollars of FIFA's money on many of its smallest or poorest FAs, commanding fealty everywhere from Vanuato to Venezuela. Where that money goes hasn't always been clear.
The DOJ said the corruption dates back 24 years, although FIFA's critics will say the history of malfeasance goes even longer than that. "The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States," said Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch. "It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks."
Hours after the U.S. action, Swiss authorities revealed an investigation related to FIFA's awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar--a nation where gametime temperatures could easily reach 120 degrees. The Swiss AG raided FIFA's headquarters and removed electronic and paper documents.
Why would FIFA allow a soccer tournament to be staged in the desert? In the summer? FIFA had previously conducted its own investigation into bribery allegations, hiring Michael Garcia, a former attorney for the southern district of New York. After Garcia delivered a 430-page report, FIFA issued a 42-page summary and concluded, "nothing wrong here." Garcia swiftly denounced the summary as containing "numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts." FIFA refused to release the full report. This time Swiss authorities, who have been hampered by that nation's privacy laws, now have ammunition to look into allegations that the Qataris, as well as the Russians, bribed their way in.
Whatever the Swiss find, the prosecution of what could be the biggest scandal in the history of sport is now headed for U.S. jurisdiction. To try to put this into perspective, think about the investigation of Lance Armstrong. He held off European authorities for years, but once the venue switched to the U.S., which has broad investigative powers, he was dead meat. Are the knives sharpening for Blatter?