The United States is filling soccer’s refereeing void. Already acting as the globe’s legal enforcer and financial regulator, Americans are now tackling long-running allegations of corruption at FIFA, the body responsible for global governance of the so-called beautiful game.
Dawn arrests on May 27 at a luxury hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, had some of the drama of a penalty shoot-out. FIFA’s top brass were gathered for the Congress of the 209 affiliated nations. Federal charges against 14 people were outlined a few hours later in the much less glamorous surroundings of Brooklyn, New York. Almost simultaneously, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland said separate criminal proceedings had started over “suspicion of criminal mismanagement” and “money laundering” in the selection of Russia and Qatar as hosts of the next two men’s World Cup tournaments.
The scope of the U.S. investigation is embarrassingly broad and the prosecutor’s language is fearfully frank. There is talk of nearly a quarter of a century of “bribes”, “kickbacks”, “racketeering” and “wire fraud”.
Allegations of wrongdoing are nothing new and FIFA is portraying itself as the “injured party”, willingly cooperating with all investigations. Indeed, it initiated the latest episode with a report filed on Nov. 18 last year.
Payoffs in the world’s most lucrative sport are like secret bank accounts and corporate tax dodging. If they escaped notice before, they are no longer acceptable. The United States, which has led the ethical charge in many areas, is the right country to kick the soccer corruption issue up the agenda. Sure, soccer is played widely in the United States, especially by women. Its men’s team has some record of success on the international stage too. But it is a country where soccer is followed with little of the fanaticism seen in Europe and South America. Its status as a relatively detached outsider dilutes the risks posed by conflicts of interest.
FIFA may now find it impossible to resist calls for root-and-branch reform. Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president who expected to be elected for a fifth consecutive four-year term later this week, faces serious questions. Answering them will require fancy footwork.