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.

Soccer Bites (Cont.)

The pathetic tale of Luis Suarez, the star Uruguayan player who bit an Italian opponent during a World Cup game, continues to unfold.

After a FIFA disciplinary panel decided that Suarez could not play in any additional World Cup games and would be suspended for four months and nine Uruguay matches, the press learned that Suarez — unbelievably — had made a submission to FIFA in which he flatly denied the bite.  Instead, Suarez claimed, he had lost his balance, fallen into the Italian player, and felt his face make contact.  Given the undisputable video evidence, FIFA rejected that claim, and also noted in issuing its suspension decision that Suarez not only had denied any wrongdoing but “at no moment showed regret or remorse of any type.”

So, guess what?  Now Suarez has finally admitted the bite, apologized on Twitter, and promised that his biting days are behind him.  Gee, what convenient timing!  Having first stonewalled, and then seen that his ludicrous denial was only having the effect of enhancing his punishment, Suarez now recognizes the error of his ways.

In a gracious gesture, the Italian player, Giorgio Chiellini, has accepted the apology and said that he hopes FIFA reduces Suarez’s suspension.  Chiellini’s behavior has been a lot classier than Suarez’s grudging admission.  When the inevitable campaign to reduce Suarez’s suspension begins, I hope FIFA responds:  “Hey, Luis.  Bite me!”

Soccer Bites

Cup, Yup — And Let The Nationalism Bubble Up

Hey, the World Cup has started!

Yup, they’re playing futbol down in Brazil, in all of those glitzy new stadiums that the Brazilians, desperate for more positive “emerging world leader”-type news coverage, have spent billions to build even though the country is beset by horrible, grinding poverty, terrible crime, and other awful societal afflictions.  Maybe all of those poor people will forget about their empty bellies and cardboard shanty homes while FIFA bigwigs limo around town and futbol fans from around the world show up in their colored wigs and toot their horns and chant their chants while men run around in shorts, kick a ball, and then fake injuries whenever they plausibly can.

I think soccer is boring — in fact, dreadfully, painfully boring — but I don’t begrudge people who think the World Cup is the greatest events in sports, period.  Isn’t it interesting, though, that the prevailing political view that nationalism is dangerous gets thrown out the window come World Cup time?  The ardent boosters of the EU will argue for just about every form of economic and political integration, but even the most suicidal EU bureaucrat wouldn’t dare argue that France, Italy, the Netherlands, et al., shouldn’t field national teams and try to beat the pants off each other when the World Cup rolls around.  Even Ghana is getting into the spirit and guaranteeing they won’t lose to Team USA.

Could the World Cup be exposing that the anti-nationalism one-worlders are, at bottom, a bunch of hypocrites?  If so, it’s doing something worthwhile — even if those guys do look kind of pathetic in their shorts and knee socks.