Last week the U.S. Department of Justice announced sweeping indictments aimed at officials within FIFA, the the governing body of soccer. In all, 14 people were charged with racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering conspiracy that allegedly turned soccer into a “criminal enterprise.” While the U.S. was announcing the indictments, Swiss officials were raiding FIFA offices in Zurich and arresting high-ranking FIFA executives.
On Saturday, the New York Times published an interesting piece about the indictments, which were the result of a long and complicated investigation undertaken by the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI that looked at tax issues and bank transfers and involved coordination with police agencies and governments in 33 countries. As is often the case, the indictments were the product of careful, patient analysis and time-honored police techniques, like focusing on building the case against one target, then flipping him and having him point the finger at his fellow crooks — because there is no honor among thieves. In the case of the FIFA investigation, that initial target was a high-flying executive who lived the lifestyle of the ultra rich but somehow filed no tax returns.
The indictments paint a picture of extraordinary corruption, involving millions of dollars in bribes and a culture of kickbacks that affected decisions ranging from the award of broadcasting and marketing rights for tournaments to the selection of host countries for the World Cup. Interestingly, those who pay attention to FIFA’s doings — i.e., football fans outside the United States — aren’t surprised by the allegations of criminal activity. In fact, many international sports fans have expressed gratitude that the U.S. has acted where other governments couldn’t, or wouldn’t. You get the sense that many countries viewed FIFA as the international giant that had to be strictly obeyed — or else your nation might lose its chance to host a tournament for find its team put into the “group of death” in the next World Cup. Now America, where soccer’s growing popularity still lags far behind that of the NFL or college football, is trying to play the role of Jack.
Sports has long since become big business, in the United States and the world. Soccer offers unique money-making opportunities because it is the one truly international team sport, where fans from virtually every nation want to watch their team play and wear their team’s gear. According to the U.S. indictments, FIFA officials took advantage of the sporting interests of fans to turn soccer into a kind of slimy international slush fund. And American officials indicate that more indictments are likely. When this case reaches the courtroom, we’ll learn a lot more about the seamy side of the soccer world.