Aaron Stanley, Bureau Manager, The Financial Times

Aaron Stanley, Bureau Manager, The Financial Times

A View From the Stands

By Aaron Stanley

For sports fans who require a continual fix of scandals to keep their interest piqued, 2015 was a pretty solid all around year.

An NFL quarterback conspiring to artificially deflate footballs, another starting quarterback having his jaw punched out by a practice squad player and a NCAA football coach getting fired for being heavily intoxicated and cursing while giving a speech to school donors are just the highlights of a year in scandals that offered a nostalgic blend of creativity, drama and idiocy.

But the biggest sports scandal of 2015, and quite possibly of all time, came outside the U.S. borders. International soccer and its governing body, FIFA, were rocked by corruption and racketeering allegations that resulted in scores of indictments and arrests in what U.S. authorities assert was a $150 million global bribery and kickback ring.

Officials of FIFA –—which administers the World Cup every four years and oversees national and regional soccer associations around the globe — are accused of shaking down prospective World Cup host cities for bribes in exchange for votes. The scandal led to the expulsion of Sepp Blatter, the group’s president for nearly two decades, from the sport for six years. Jerome Valcke, Blatter’s deputy was given the boot for twice as long.

Cynics might argue that this isn’t really a scandal in the traditional sense because corruption and soccer — or football, as those strange foreigners call it — are typically associated with one another in the same manner as doping and cycling.

But the events have served to validate what most observers had long known or at least assumed implicitly. In the process, FIFA — headquartered in Switzerland — has endured an astonishing level of damage to its brand — comparable to Pete Rose’s gambling addiction or the Chicago Black Sox intentionally losing the 1919 World Series.

By cleaning out the bad apples at the top of the organization and holding an ostensibly transparent and fair election for Blatter’s replacement, FIFA is hoping this year will be different from last. The good news for incoming president Gianni Infantino, who upset a Bahraini sheik to win the election last week, is that things cannot possibly get much worse.

After being elected in the closest such contest in nearly 40 years, Infantino is looking to make an immediate splash by implementing new safeguards to allow the sunlight of transparency to disinfect and clean out the dark areas. FIFA presidents will be term-limited, their salaries will be made public and women will play a heightened role in various forums and councils within the group.

“And we will restore the image of FIFA and the respect of FIFA, and everyone in the world will applaud us and will applaud all of you for what we’ll do in FIFA in the future,” Infantino proclaimed after his election last week.

His other key priority will be resuming the bidding process for the 2026 World Cup host city, which was temporarily halted last year by the corruption probe and Blatter’s ousting. This will surely be scrutinized more carefully after the bids of Russia for the 2018 cup and Qatar for 2022 were marred with corruption allegations. Qatar reportedly paid as much as $5 million in bribes to secure its host city status.

Maybe this is just my inner cynic coming out, but given Infantino’s background as a longtime insider and crony within the European soccer establishment, it is difficult to predict wholesale changes in how FIFA carries out its business. The deposed Blatter said as much in a warning to Infantino, asserting that his new job would be no walk in the park.

As with any other organized criminal rings, FIFA is immune in many ways to the criminal investigations that would doom other groups. Even with the continuing drip of legal activity against the officials indicted last year, soccer is still far and away the most popular sport in the world, and host cities seem more than happy to pay the necessary bribes to bring the Cup to their home turf if that is what is needed. 

Such immunity will surely continue until the next public relations crisis, which will hopefully be Qatar’s egregious use of slave labor to construct its World Cup facilities, a development that has been largely underreported in the West.

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