SOCCER IS a game, a beautiful game — but it isn’t only a game. It is a global cultural obsession, and its quadrennial showcase, the World Cup, is one of the biggest entertainment spectacles on the planet. Hungry for prestige, revenue, tourism and construction projects, nations large and small, free and unfree, compete to host the World Cup and related tournaments, which coincidentally yield billions of dollars for the International Federation of Association Football, more commonly known by the French acronym FIFA, and its component bodies.
In short, FIFA’s decisions affect large quantities of the world’s scarce resources — including, sometimes, the resources of countries with priorities even more pressing than sports. A business that big, and that consequential, must operate transparently and accountably. Yet FIFA’s recent decision to bury a report by its own ethics investigator, Michael Garcia, and Mr. Garcia’s resignation in protest, typifies this ostensible Swiss nonprofit’s efforts to police itself.
So it is entirely proper, and laudable, that Attorney General Loretta Lynch has issued an indictment officially alleging what had long been rumored: FIFA is a cesspool of corruption and bribery. The indictment charged 14 people with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy in connection with various schemes to, as Ms. Lynch put it, “decide who would televise games, where the games would be held, and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide.”
The U.S. investigation is still in its early phases, which is good, because there are much bigger issues to be resolved. Soccer fans have long been mystified at FIFA’s choice of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly aggressive and repressive Russia over several Western European candidates to host the World Cup in 2018, and rich but tiny and climatically unsuitable Qatar over the United States, Australia and a joint Japanese-Korean bid for 2022. Many presumed that bribery of FIFA executives explained these bizarre picks, a presumption not weakened by the indictment — nor by the fact that Switzerland opened a criminal investigation of the 2018 and 2022 Cup bids on the same day that Swiss agents helped U.S. prosecutors by arresting several indicted FIFA officials in Zurich.
Yes, soccer is just a game, but corrupt or dictatorial rulers love to bask in its reflected glory. That’s why it would be misguided even without bribery to celebrate the World Cup in Mr. Putin’s Russia or in Qatar, where oppressed Asian guest workers labor to build stadiums for the tournament. Now would be a good time for FIFA to nullify its award to those two countries and reopen the bidding under independent supervision.
It would also be a good time to end the career of FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who has reigned over the organization, and distributed its revenues, since 1998. He is up for reelection on Friday and reportedly is intent on remaining in office. Though the U.S. indictment does not name him, it names several of his top lieutenants. At this point, he is in the position of protesting that he had no idea what they might have been up to all these years — and that is not a good position.