Reactions around the world were mixed after yesterday’s news that the U.S. Justice Department had indicted 14 FIFA officials and issued warrants for five of them to be arrested at the organization’s annual congress in Zurich.
Some questioned the timing and cinematic undertaking of the crackdown; while others imagined what it would be like if U.S. law enforcement was to carry out such a raid at the behest of Switzerland.
But most can agree that for the group that has long been synonymous with international corruption and general skullduggery, it’s about time somebody took them on.
The U.S. is accusing FIFA officials of accepting upwards of $150 million in bribes over two decades and is pledging to end the group’s culture of graft, most notably the bribing of officials on the executive committee by countries in competition to host the World Cup.
Sure, there has been an ongoing window dressing investigation into whether FIFA officials received bribes in exchange for awarding the 2022 World Cup to Qatar – which it obviously did, given that Qatar has no soccer tradition to speak of and is well over 100 degrees during the summer, making it a miserable soccer environment. But previous inquiries have had no teeth compared to the current probe launched by the U.S. government – which is accusing FIFA officials of laundering bribed money through the U.S. financial system.
Because the global flow of finance passes through New York in some form or another, the Justice Department is now commonly using the money laundering issue as a means to go after bad guys and be a global traffic cop of sorts.
This route has more frequently been used to go after foreign banks that violate U.S. sanctions against countries seeking nuclear hegemony (Iran), genocidal regimes (Sudan) and basket case communists (Cuba). If a bank lends to or accepts deposits from these countries and the funds at some point flow through the U.S., the door is opened for U.S. authorities to crack down.
Few could have imagined that their newest target would be FIFA. There are, after all, surely worse sins committed each day than corrupting an international soccer network.
But FIFA’s misdoings are much greater than just match-fixing or other petty crimes. The group’s practices are akin to those of the mafia or a drug cartel that engages in racketeering and extortion for the personal enrichment of top officials.
But the investigation falls short of the top rung of the ladder – it targets only select individuals instead of FIFA itself, which has long set the gold standard for corrupt international bodies.
FIFA’s president, the highly unlikable and unfortunately named Sepp Blatter, was not included in the indictment. Regarded by many as the most powerful figure in worldwide sport, he wisely issued a statement saying the probes would make soccer stronger by weeding out the bad actors.
The problem is that FIFA itself is the bad actor and that it is a genie that is too large and powerful to be stuffed back in the bottle. The politically savvy Blatter and his colleagues have built an organization that is far bigger and more important than just 14 men and is well shielded against threats to its lucrative racketeering business model.
The U.S. indictment may give it a temporary black eye and deter some potential U.S.-based sponsors, but the group is far less dependent on US backing than, say, the International Olympic Committee – which cleaned up its act after the US pressed it on corruption allegations a decade ago.
It appears doubtful that Qatar will retain the 2022 World Cup, but craze of global soccer and FIFA’s dominance over it means that the group’s problems will continue to remain a footnote.