NEW YORK — Known as the beautiful game for the on-field spectacle, soccer has operated for decades under an ugly cloud of allegations related to match-fixing in professional leagues and bribery in connection with the hosting of the sport’s premier competition, the World Cup.
At the center of soccer’s immense global influence sits Federation Internationale de Football Association, better known as FIFA, a Swiss-based organization that serves as the umbrella governing body for the sport.
Wednesday’s revelations — 47-count indictments brought by the Justice Department, arrests of executives gathered in Zurich for annual meetings and a raid of affiliated offices in Miami — shook FIFA like no internal or independent investigation before.
The charges were by far the most powerful strike against FIFA — and perhaps a watershed moment for the governing body of the world’s most popular sport — and intensified calls for reform to an organization that has long drawn fans’ ire over corrupt leaders and a structure that helps perpetuate their influence.
Whether FIFA is capable of meaningful reform remains to be seen, in large part because of what has been the unwavering support for FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter by many of the organization’s smaller member-countries who benefit most from his largesse.
Blatter did appear to lose the support of Brazil, one of the world’s soccer powers, Wednesday when it called for the postponement of a vote Friday that is expected to result in his reelection. The move could lead to more defectors.
FIFA counts 209 members, more than the United Nations , and rakes in billions of dollars at every World Cup. Soccer fans and players worldwide for years have expressed dismay over the organization’s practices, yet it has operated in much the same fashion.
“Enough is enough,” Kelly T. Curry, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said in announcing indictments against nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives on charges of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering.
“Organized international soccer needs a new start — a new chance for its governing institutions to provide honest oversight and support of a sport that is beloved across the world, increasingly so here in the United States. Let me be clear: This indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation.”
Although he was not charged, Blatter is facing increased scrutiny about his iron-fisted rule that began in 1998. Blatter, 79, is up for reelection Friday, opposed by Jordan’s Prince Ali bin-al Hussein, a FIFA vice president promising reform but facing long odds of ending Blatter’s reign.
Two other candidates dropped out last week. One of them, former Portuguese star Luis Figo, called FIFA a “dictatorship” and said the election was merely a platform for “the delivery of absolute power to one man.”
The U.S. Soccer Federation and the English Football Association were among six national bodies to nominate bin Hussein last winter.
Even with an ongoing investigation and greater focus on FIFA’s operations, bin-al Hussein said this week that he was approached by an individual promising to deliver dozens of votes Friday. He said he did not accept the offer and contacted authorities.
Bin-al Hussein issued a statement following Wednesday’s developments saying it was “a sad day for football.”
“We cannot continue with the crisis in FIFA, a crisis that has been ongoing and is not just relevant to the events of today,” bin-al Hussein said. “FIFA needs leadership that governs, guides and protects our national associations. . . . Leadership that restores confidence in the hundreds of millions of football fans around the world.”
Despite Wednesday’s turmoil and calls from various national associations to postpone the vote, FIFA spokesman Walter de Gregorio said the election will proceed as scheduled.
Each of FIFA’s 209 member nations has a vote — wherein the problem lies for those eager to oust Blatter. While bigger and wealthier soccer-playing countries, particularly in Europe, have campaigned to boot him, many less developed nations benefit from FIFA’s financial support and are thus beholden to Blatter — and susceptible to influence. These countries have maintained their steadfast support for the FIFA leader for years.
FIFA, which technically is a nonprofit institution, took in an estimated $4 billion from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, mostly from TV deals and corporate partnerships. It says it spends $550,000 a day on worldwide soccer development — on such things as stadiums, fields and training centers — but the suspicion has long been that most of those funds have ended up in private hands.
The setup 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.
Even if Blatter wins reelection, though, the criminal investigation is expected to have long-term effects on the way FIFA conducts itself.
“This is a long time coming and certainly a positive development,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor and sports economist who authored, “Circus Maximus: the Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.” “This is an opportunity for soccer to right itself and to have a better future. Even though there are dark clouds, I think it’s a bright day for soccer’s future.”
American soccer fans hope that future includes moving the 2022 World Cup to U.S. soil.
Swiss authorities are conducting a criminal probe into the 2010 selection of Qatar, a small but wealthy Middle East nation, to host the 2022 World Cup. The United States was considered the early favorite but finished second in the voting.
Almost immediately, Qatar and other figures were accused of bribing members of the FIFA executive committee, a 24-member board that votes on the World Cup hosts. Blatter ignored claims made by whistle-blowers and, instead of calling a new vote, let the actions stand.
Two years ago, under increasing criticism, FIFA did hire Michael Garcia, a former U.S. prosecutor, to conduct an internal probe of the World Cup bidding process. But upon its completion last fall, the organization released only a small portion of the 430-page findings. Garcia said the information made public was “incomplete and erroneous.”
Despite numerous issues related to the Qatar bid, including oppressive heat during the summer months and mistreatment of migrant workers building the stadiums, FIFA has stood by the decision.
It ended up moving the tournament to December 2022, a schedule that provides more favorable weather conditions in Qatar but conflicts with the professional league calendars in most of the world. FIFA also said it would address the labor issues.
Russia’s selection to host the 2018 World Cup also drew scrutiny, stemming from bribery accusations, but not to the degree of the Qatar decision.
Australia and England, among others, had submitted 2022 World Cup bids as well.
Although Swiss authorities are investigating the selection process, FIFA reiterated Wednesday that the locations of the next two tournaments will not change. However, one U.S. soccer official, who requested anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak on the matter, said the 2022 tournament moving to the United States is not out of the question.
“It’s going to take some time, but if the Swiss find some bad stuff involving bribes in order to get the World Cup, it would trigger the U.S., Australia and England into action for reconsideration,” the official said.
The United States hosted the 1994 World Cup, the most well-attended tournament in history and a launching pad for soccer’s ambitious efforts to join American mainstream sports. In the wake of the failed 2022 effort, the U.S. Soccer Federation turned its attention to landing the 2026 competition.
FIFA’s problems have steadily eroded worldwide fan support for the organization. In a poll of more than 35,000 fans from 30 countries released this week by Transparency International, 83 percent said they want Blatter to step down and 69 percent said they had no confidence in FIFA.
The poll also showed Australia favored slightly over the United States to stage the 2022 World Cup instead of Qatar.
Whether the investigations prompt a 2022 re-vote and, in a broader context, force change in FIFA remains to be seen.
“We are pleased to see that the investigation is being energetically pursued for the good of football,” FIFA said in a statement addressing Wednesday’s indictments, “and believe that it will help to reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken.”
Ishaan Tharoor contributed to this report.
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