This week FIFA’s reputation for corruption became more than just a reputation, with 14 top officials indicted on charges of corruption. Their headquarters in Zurich were raided, and seven officials arrested there, soon to be extradited to the United States. Surprisingly the investigation has come from the US, a country famously not really that interested in football. The charges came just as controversial Sepp Blatter was once again re-elected to his position of President of FIFA, and have brought mixed reactions from different parts of the world. So how serious are the charges? What does it mean for the future of FIFA? And why are some countries still so supportive of Blatter?
US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has called it “corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted”. Essentially the allegations are that numerous high up FIFA officials, mainly in FIFA’s Americas division (CONCACAF) accepted bribes and illegal payments for their votes on FIFA presidential elections and especially the hosting of the 2010 World Cup. Today a South African official has finally admitted that a $10 million payment was made to CONCACAF, but denied it was a bribe. Furthermore the media and commercial rights to tournaments and games played in the Americas appear to have been incredibly corrupt, with $110 million being paid in bribes to FIFA officials for Copa America rights alone.
The US indictment contains no allegations regarding Russia’s 2018 World Cup or Qatar’s 2022 World Cup, or that president Sepp Blatter was involved. However, the scandal isn’t over. Firstly, the charges give a lot of legitimacy to the rumours and allegations that have been going around about the 2018 and 2022 Cups. While a FIFA investigation last year cleared itself of wrongdoing, the man who led the investigation has said that the report FIFA produced on his work was full of errors and lies. Secondly, the fact that Sepp Blatter is yet again president of FIFA has produced outrage from many, and his refusal to step down and attitude of a martyr isn’t helping. Blatter seems unable to understand that his position as president now symbolises everything that is wrong with FIFA.
From some quarters there are now calls for serious action. The European division of FIFA, UEFA, is meeting in Berlin this week and the English FA has called for a UEFA boycott of the 2018 World Cup as a protest. This would be massive, as a World Cup without countries like England, Germany or the Netherlands wouldn’t be taken seriously, especially if broadcasters and sponsors took part in the boycott. While many other European countries are unlikely to take part, as a sidenote I have to say that personally I’m hoping 2018 doesn’t go ahead. The idea of Vladimir Putin’s Russia getting to host the world’s biggest sporting event sticks in my throat.
However, the Europeans might find themselves a bit isolated. The fact remains that Blatter was easily re-elected thanks to support from Africa and Asia. Under Blatter FIFA has invested heavily in football in the developing world, and turned away from the Eurocentrism the organisation previously displayed. Now you could simply see that as bribery or as being in the right place at the right time, but Blatter has made a big difference to football in dozens of countries. To some the calls for a boycott by the English FA is just sour grapes at seeing Europe’s power over the game of football slipping away. To some others, it’s a sign of an actual conspiracy by the US and England to hit out at Russia
As the drama plays itself out, many people will say that sport shouldn’t become mixed up with politics, especially with regards to a 2018 boycott. When we’re talking about world cups though, this is – to put it politely – ridiculous. The World Cup is politics of the highest degree. Countries fight it out for the right to host an event that brings billions of viewers – and billions of dollars. To host one is a sign of legitimacy, a sign of respect, and can have a huge impact on domestic politics. If it wasn’t political, countries wouldn’t pay millions of dollars to try and host one. When the organisation leading football is so clearly corrupt, to ignore the problems and just focus on the pitch is foolish.
Can I just say though, despite FIFA, the World Cup is utterly amazing, the best month of every 4 years. I really, really hope it isn’t held in Russia.