For many, the arrest of seven top officials at FIFA, soccer's global governing body, on U.S. federal corruption charges was a long time coming. The world may love the beautiful game more than any other, but the sport's main administrative organization is widely perceived as being bloated and rapacious. Its head, FIFA President Sepp Blatter — who was not among those arrested — rules like a sovereign monarch, undeterred by hostile public opinion.
Here's what you need to know about FIFA's enormous power and its terrible reputation.
What is FIFA?
In 1904, the Federation Internationale de Football Association was founded by a group of Frenchmen seeking to form an umbrella organization for the sport's various national bodies. Like a lot of international organizations, it was initially a European club and slowly expanded to other corners of the globe.
Its mission throughout has been to help support the development of the game and organize international competitions. FIFA also gives guidance on the rules and management of the sport.
Early on, rivalry with the International Olympic Committee eventually led to FIFA holding its first World Cup — in Uruguay in 1930. The tournament was small, invitation only, and barely discussed in Britain, the birthplace of the sport. That soon changed. The epic tournaments now staged under FIFA's aegis every four years are the most anticipated and watched events on the planet — and a huge, money-spinning bonanza for FIFA itself.
The World Cup, argues British soccer historian David Goldblatt, is perhaps one of the greatest "occasions during which humanity can be an imagined community," united by the fits and starts of 22 men in shorts chasing after a ball. The 1998 World Cup in France, for example, had a mind-boggling cumulative audience of 37 billion people.
How does FIFA work?
What began as a genteel, voluntary club now functions like a pantomime United Nations — indeed, there are more FIFA member associations than member states in the U.N. General Assembly. It has its own dreamy, utopian rhetoric of international equality, prosperity and development, to boot. Here is a FIFA video on how the institution works:
Six regional confederations — roughly the world's continents — feed into the overall organization of the game. The FIFA Congress, comprised of delegates from around the world, elects the organization's president in elections held at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland. The president and the heads of regional confederations are part of FIFA's executive committee, the organization's main decision-making body. It's this committee that votes on which country gets to host the World Cup.
So what's the problem?
The advent of television and marketing rights, the commercialization of everything, and the unprecedented global obsession with soccer all spurred FIFA's evolution from a tiny, amateur operation into a multibillion-dollar industry. FIFA gets to be the guardian of world soccer on trust, and therefore has to do very little to see its own coffers swell.
It places much of the financial burden of staging the World Cup on the host country — last year's tournament in Brazil prompted mass protests by Brazilians furious that vast sums of taxpayer money were being spent on stadiums rather than much-needed infrastructure, hospitals and schools. Yet FIFA, which as a technically nonprofit institution pays few taxes, raked in an estimated $4 billion from the 2014 World Cup, mostly from TV deals and corporate partnerships. (That money is meant to trickle down — FIFA claims it spends $550,000 on worldwide soccer development every day.)
This set-up is a breeding ground for the "rampant, systemic and deep-rooted" corruption cited by U.S. authorities Wednesday, as well as what fuels the elaborate networks of patronage that link the sport's top administrators with officials in national soccer associations. The individuals arrested are accused of taking bribes and kickbacks from various private firms in the bidding for lucrative soccer-related contracts, which include deals tied to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Allegations of bribery still surround FIFA's decision to award Russia and Qatar the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively. The Qatar bid, in particular, drew a furious backlash, with critics pointing to the tiny Persian Gulf emirate's appalling record on workers' rights and its muzzling of press freedoms.
Does this mean FIFA will change?
Probably not, at least if it's left to its own devices. FIFA has already indicated that the status of Russia and Qatar's World Cup bids are not in question. Last year, it issued a report clearing itself of any wrongdoing in the bidding process, though a lawyer who was part of the investigation subsequently claimed that the report "contains numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations."
The ability of FIFA as an institution to shake off criticism is best embodied by Blatter himself, a man variously described as "the dark prince of football" and "the most successful non-homicidal dictator of the past century," as my colleague Cindy Boren notes.
Before the arrests, Blatter was poised to comfortably win reelection this week to another term as FIFA president. In 2011, his chief rival, Mohammad bin Hammam, saw a promising election campaign derailed by corruption allegations. Blatter emerged unscathed. He has held the top post since 1998.
It's unclear how much deeper the U.S. and Swiss-led investigations may go, and to what extent they may shake up FIFA's governance structure or spur boycotts or wider protests against FIFA.
"Soccer’s leaders survive in part because until very recently, the world has lived under the illusion that soccer is not a matter for politics and thus for serious public debate," wrote Goldblatt, the soccer historian, in 2011. "They are wrong. No practice is more global than soccer." The resulting investigations into FIFA's corruptions may well prove that.
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