You may have just seen this headline, or a related one: “Sepp Blatter Re-elected as FIFA Boss Despite Charges” What does it mean? Which of those words are nouns, which are verbs, and which refer to human beings? Allow me to guide you, non sports fan.
Many Americans describe soccer as: boring, slow, nonviolent, “not really my thing,” dull, very boring, almost impossibly boring. And while it is true that soccer is all those things, sometimes, there’s at least one more way to describe it: incredibly corrupt.
On Wednesday, U.S. Department of Justice officials announced a wide-ranging indictment against more than a dozen officials connected to soccer’s reigning body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, also known as FIFA (pronounced FEEFA) (or Fife-ah if you are a schmuck).
You don’t have to be a soccer fan, or even a sports fan, or even a fan of non-English-language acronyms, to announce to your friends at a tetherball game or during a breezy happy hour, “It’s time we learned the important tidbits of the FIFA controversy. I have seen all the headlines and know that something has hit the fan, but what is it and how big is this item? Can the enormous quantity of information be reduced into a small, digestible package? Appearing knowledgable in front of ones friends is essential to success, but my knowledge of FIFA’s corruption, lawsuits, and arrests is as small as a tiny bumblebee that I can fit in my pocket.”
As Americans begin to “enter the conversation” about soccer simply because we cannot stand to be left out of anything—especially anything sports-related—it is better to be informed than to be left with visible grass stains on the knees, not knowing it until an opposing defender points it out and laughs.
So let’s get down to brass tacks of the FIFA controversy. Meet me on the pitch (field) for a match (game) of information (knowledge) exchanged among friends (enemies). Blow the whistle—goal!
What exactly is FIFA, and what does it do?
Formed in 1904, FIFA—as I said above, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association—is the worldwide governing body for soccer (or, as it’s known to pedants, association football). Its essential function is to organize tournaments on both regional and international levels. The biggest of these, the men’s World Cup, is held once every four years. The women’s World Cup is also once every four years. Is this relevant information? That’s really up to you to decide. FIFA is also the governing body of futsal and beach soccer, whatever those are.
So why should I—who have, in all likelihood, stumbled upon this page accidentally, while attempting to click on a sexy photo I saw on Facebook—care about FIFA?
I appreciate you, dear reader, for you are honest about your interests. You don’t, by any means, have to care about the current scandal embroiling FIFA, because one of the many truly beautiful things about knowledge is that you can choose to dismiss it or participate in its existence. But here are a few reasons why it might behoove you to appear interested.
FIFA has its hands in everything. As you might expect from an enormous governing body in an incredibly lucrative multibillion dollar industry, FIFA is tied to (read: has its hands in the pockets of) advertisers, athletes, laborers, referees, TV networks, media, slaves, and any single person who is a participant, viewer, or fan of soccer on a national level. Because any country that bids to host a World Cup is expected to build stadiums to accommodate upward of five million new people in its cities, FIFA can change their landscapes in one year.
Can you tell me some facts about FIFA that will shock and anger me?
- There are 209 senior men’s national teams and 129 senior women’s national teams under the umbrella of FIFA, with many, many more teams beneath that. These senior national teams are affiliated with six confederations that span the globe. These six confederations operate and answer to (occasionally are bought by) FIFA. The sport of soccer would not exist without FIFA’s paternal and financial oversight.
- In 2014, it was estimated that FIFA made over $2 billion profit from the World Cup alone. That’s a tournament that lasts for barely one month of the year. In FIFA’S 2013 finance report, they made $72 million profit off of $1.3 billion dollars in revenue. The World Cup is a monolithic cash cow for FIFA, but with it or without it, money is being made for the organization.
- FIFA operates under Swiss law, though money is dealt in American dollars. It’s headquarters is in Zurich.
- Reports say that in preparation for the 2022 Men’s World Cup, migrant worker deaths in Qatar have already risen to above 1,000 workers since construction for the World Cup began. The International Trade Union estimates that this number will rise to at above 4,000 workers before the tournament even begins.
Let’s talk about the more recent news. What’s the deal?
FIFA is an immensely corrupt and thoroughly poisoned organization, due in large part to the huge mountains of money that it sits on. Though I recognize it’s hard to swallow, soccer is the world’s biggest sport. Imagine the power that comes with being ostensibly in control of everything and anything that occurs under that football-shaped sun—including tons and tons and tons of cash.
As we know, power corrupts and money poisons, so the men in charge of these dealings have gotten themselves into a little bit of trouble regarding how cash within and around the org is being dealt with. Though investigations of corruption have been ongoing for many years with FIFA, on Tuesday, the hammer definitively fell when long-suspected (and alleged) corruption, racketeering, and bribery was exposed during the arrest of nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives. The FIFA officials are suspected of accepting kickbacks and bribes to the tune of $150 million over the course of 24 years. The full indictment, and all its juicy details, is here.
Who was arrested?
You don’t exactly need to know these names, given your overwhelming lack of interest in this information anyway, but just in case you are being quizzed at gunpoint, here is a breakdown (via the Department of Justice’s indictment) of who was arrested (or will be arrested) due to Tuesday’s shakeup. Some were in Zurich, while others were in Miami, Trinidad, etc., when the news broke:
Jeffrey Webb: Current FIFA vice president and executive committee member, CONCACAF president, Caribbean Football Union (CFU) executive committee member and Cayman Islands Football Association (CIFA) president.
Eduardo Li: Current FIFA executive committee member-elect, CONCACAF executive committee member and Costa Rican soccer federation (FEDEFUT) president.
Julio Rocha: Current FIFA development officer. Former Central American Football Union (UNCAF) president and Nicaraguan soccer federation (FENIFUT) president.
Costas Takkas: Current attaché to the CONCACAF president. Former CIFA general secretary.
Jack Warner: Former FIFA vice president and executive committee member, CONCACAF president, CFU president and Trinidad and Tobago Football Federation (TTFF) special adviser.
Eugenio Figueredo: Current FIFA vice president and executive committee member. Former CONMEBOL president and Uruguayan soccer federation (AUF) president.
Rafael Esquivel: Current CONMEBOL executive committee member and Venezuelan soccer federation (FVF) president.
José Maria Marin: Current member of the FIFA organizing committee for the Olympic football tournaments. Former CBF president.
Nicolás Leoz: Former FIFA executive committee member and CONMEBOL president.
Four of the defendants were sports marketing executives:
Alejandro Burzaco: Controlling principal of Torneos y Competencias S.A., a sports marketing business based in Argentina, and its affiliates.
Aaron Davidson: President of Traffic Sports USA Inc. (Traffic USA).
Hugo and Mariano Jinkis: Controlling principals of Full Play Group S.A., a sports marketing business based in Argentina, and its affiliates.
And one of the defendants was in the broadcasting business but allegedly served as an intermediary to facilitate illicit payments between sports marketing executives and soccer officials:
José Margulies: Controlling principal of Valente Corp. and Somerton Ltd.
In sum: Rafael Esquivel, Nicolas Leoz, Jeffrey Webb, Jack Warner, Eduardo Li, Eugenio Figueredo, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, and Jose Maria Marin are the FIFA officials. Alejandro Burzaco, Aaron Davidson, Hugo Jinkis, Mariano Jinkis, and José Margulies were the corporate executives.
Wait—did I hear correctly that the U.S. was responsible for the arrests?
You did indeed. This was a U.S. Department of Justice operation—though some officials were arrested in Zurich, Switzerland in what looked like the most chill arrest in recent history. (One of the arrested FIFA officials was allowed to take his luggage with him through a back door of the hotel, and Swiss officials, acting on behalf of the United States, arrived in Nissan Leafs to pick up their targets.) Why were Swiss officials acting on behalf of the U.S.? The Washington Post has a really nice explainer on the topic:
In the case of the FIFA charges, the alleged crimes include wire fraud. In an e-mail to The Washington Post, Prof. Jennifer Arlen of the New York University School of Law pointed out that the need for jurisdiction in that case is fairly rigid. “With wire fraud, one needs a wire that originates in the US,” Arlen wrote. “This means that most of the acts of bribery that occurred [within FIFA] over the years would not be covered.” On Wednesday morning, the FBI searched the offices of CONCACAF, FIFA’s continental confederation located in Miami. Among the companies alleged to have been involved in criminal activity is Traffic Sports USA Inc., which also is based in Florida.
Several of the FIFA officials who were arrested were members of CONCACAF, which is the North, Central America and Caribbean football association. It’s likely in this indictment that the U.S. government found paper trail or dealings that were done on American soil or through our banks, thus giving Attorney General Loretta Lynch reason to get involved.
But why did it take the U.S. to take on an organization everyone agrees is corrupt? Americans don’t even care about soccer!
At Above the Law Redline, Elie Mystal convincingly argues that the U.S. DOJ, rather than another country’s regulators, handed out these indictments specifically because the U.S. doesn’t care about soccer—and isn’t worried about hamstringing its own soccer development programs, as these indictments almost certainly will.
Tell me about this guy that I keep hearing about, Step Ladder. What’s this about him being re-elected?
Sepp Blatter, yeah him. He has been president of FIFA since 1998, then was reelected in 2002, 2007, and 2011—and again, today. What can you say? The guy knows how to make friends by lining their pockets with Swiss Francs and other goodies. An important note from the New York Times that came out prior to his re-election:
FIFA’s president is elected by a one-country, one-vote system among its 209 member associations. That has allowed Mr. Blatter to use his popularity, the relationships he has cultivated over a 40-year career at FIFA and his ability to deliver millions of dollars in development money as an effective counterweight to his unpopularity in Europe.
During his Thursday speech, Mr. Blatter did not directly address the election but indicated, in several different ways, that he believes he is the best person to lead FIFA’s change.
Just because he personally believes he is the best person to “lead FIFA’s change” does not mean he is. The president of the European confederation, UEFA’s Michel Platini, has called for Blatter to step down, saying, he was “disgusted” and “sickened” by the corruption and scandal erupting within the organization.
Sepp Blatter is not going to step down.
What is this Bladder guy saying about all the corruption malarkey?
He is saying exactly what you’d expect, which is that he had no fucking CLUE that there was any corruption or controversy going on in his organization. His full statement, released a day after the arrests of the nine FIFA officials, can be read here, but here’s a taste:
This is a difficult time for football, the fans and for FIFA as an organization. We understand the disappointment that many have expressed and I know that the events of today will impact the way in which many people view us.
LOL I mean Okay.
So what now?
In November of last year, the NY Daily News wrote on Chuck Blazer, the man who ratted FIFA out to the DOJ. Blazer, a former FIFA executive turned FBI informant was caught by authorities for more or less the same shit that is currently going down with these other officials (racketeering, bribing, money laundering). This guy seems fun. It’s likely that some of the information Blazer gave feds is what led to this week’s arrests. Will the other officials turn? To be determined. Could this bring FIFA down? Let’s hope so! Will it be a slow process regardless? Yes.
As for the 2018 and 2022 men’s World Cup tournaments, these issues are a little bit sticky. There is no way that the 2018 World Cup will be moved to a different country, though it’s almost certain that votes were bought in order to get the World Cup hosted by warm, welcoming Russia. The 2022 Qatar World Cup possibly could go somewhere else, a place where there is a soccer culture and heat that isn’t oppressive. FIFA, however, says there will not be a re-vote and both World Cups will stay where they are.
There are rumblings that England plans to boycott the 2018 World Cup in response to Blatter’s being voted in as president once again. People are incredibly eager for change within the organization, but people are also incredibly eager for cold hard cash in their hands. Which one will win out is still on the table. But all of this mess is certainly a beginning to a long, drawn-out, and possibly never-to-be-seen-in-our-lifetime end to the organization of FIFA as we know it.