AN INTERNATIONAL INVESTIGATION IS THREATENING TO BLOW UP AN OUTFIT THAT HAS LONG PROMISED TO SAVE THE WORLD WITH SOCCER BUT INSTEAD HAS ALLEGEDLY LEANED ON MEMBER NATIONS, RICH AND POOR, TO LINE THE POCKETS OF A SELECT FEW. THE FIRST SIGN OF POSITIVE CHANGE: PRESIDENT SEPP BLATTER'S PENDING RESIGNATION
This is an article from the June 15, 2015 issue
IT WAS a cavalcade of the bizarre—a macaw trained to spew insults; an accused grifter who cited an article from the satirical Onion in his defense; cats with their own apartment in Trump Tower; a veteran of various Tarantino movies playing the lead role in an autobiopic that only an organization drunk on self-aggrandizement would bankroll. Each absurdity took its turn in the news during an astonishing week that began on May 27 with U.S. prosecutors announcing indictments of 14 FIFA-connected officials and marketing executives for bribery, fraud and money laundering. That was on a Wednesday. Two days later members of soccer's international governing body nonetheless reelected a defiant and as-yet-uncharged Sepp Blatter as FIFA's president. And then, on the following Tuesday, came the moment that trumped them all, when the 79-year-old suddenly announced his intent to resign.
The feds unveiled their charges (filed quietly in federal district court in Brooklyn a week earlier) on the same day that Swiss police arrested seven suspects during a dawn raid at the luxury Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich. When members nonetheless handed Blatter a fifth four-year term, they ignored the pleas of his opponent, Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, that under its leader FIFA had become "an avaricious body which feeds on the game that the world loves." For his part, Blatter had delivered a rambling speech in which, among other puzzlements, he said, "Time is a flat circle. I am with you. Some will say a long time; some will say too long. But what is time?"
Ultimately, Blatter conceded that time, whatever else it may be, was up—at least for him. Whether the precipitating factor was the prospect of further indictments, or a nudge from his daughter, Corinne, he promised to step down late this year or early next, after FIFA chooses a successor. (It's worth remembering: When reelected in 2011 he made a pledge not to run again in '15, but he did so anyway.)
SOCCER IS a strikingly elegant and simple sport. Every referee in the world works from the same edition of the Laws of the Game, rules that apply to both the Champions League final and the American Youth Soccer Organization six-year-olds who beehive around the ball in the park down the street. But FIFA, tawdry and byzantine, was literally founded in a back room—the rear of the Parisian headquarters of the Union Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºaise des Sports Athlètiques, in 1904. On the modus operandi of Brazil's Jo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬£o Havelange, who ruled the organization from '74 to '98, Henry Kissinger once observed, "It makes me feel nostalgic for the Middle East."
"When I came to FIFA we had 20 dollars in the bank," Havelange said upon yielding to Blatter, his longtime lieutenant, after those two dozen years in power. "Now we have four billion." Havelange was exaggerating about the first figure, but not the second—and his was a valedictory boast, not penitence. The comment foretold where Blatter would take the game. FIFA underwrote almost $25 million of the $27 million budget for the film United Passions, a gauzy tribute to the soccer organization that opened in the U.S. last Friday, with Tim Roth of Pulp Fiction fame cast as its noble president. (Adding to the comedy, the movie earned just $607 across 10 theaters in its first weekend.) One day earlier FIFA had confirmed that, after Ireland failed to qualify for the 2010 World Cup as the result of an unwhistled hand ball by France's Thierry Henry, it quietly cut a $7.5 million check to the Irish soccer federation to ease the sting. Whether the money serves as lubricant or emollient, or funding for cinematic self-flattery, Blatter has presided over soccer moola-ganism run amok.
In a perfect world FIFA would serve two, maybe three functions: organize its various international competitions, maintain those aforementioned rules and, perhaps, through a transparent and independent charitable foundation, steer development money to legitimate purposes in needy countries. But FIFA as it exists is dysfunctional, and we can now see the extent. The most striking feature of the U.S. probe—the four-year investigation began with FBI and IRS agents looking into unrelated money transfers tied to Russian organized crime—is how few of the charges touch on FIFA's biggest, quadrennial event. That broadcast and marketing rights to such second-tier tournaments as the Copa America and the Gold Cup could generate tens of millions of dollars in bribes hints at the breathtaking sums that likely changed hands when a World Cup was at stake.
In a 2013 speech to the Oxford Union, Blatter scoffed at "the supposed sordid secrets that lie deep in our Bond-villain headquarters" outside Zurich and ridiculed the idea "that I sit in my office with a sinister grin, gently stroking the chin of an expensive, white Persian cat as my terrible sidekicks scour the earth to force countries to host the World Cup and to hand over all of their money." But if Blatter didn't orchestrate FIFA's now broadly documented corruption, he at the very least sat back and let it occur. During the 2000s he appointed to one FIFA "committee of investigation" Havelange's former son-in-law, onetime Brazilian soccer federation president Ricardo Teixeira, whom FIFA has since confirmed took millions in World Cup--related kickbacks; and Jack Warner, the former CONCACAF president who, after turning himself in to police in his native Trinidad to face the U.S. charges, unwittingly waved that Onion headline in his defense. An investigation last year by The Sunday Times of London alleged that Qatar paid millions in bribes to land the '22 World Cup; FIFA acquiesced to calls for a probe of that matter, appointing former U.S. attorney Michael Garcia to deliver a report, but then refused to make its contents public, releasing instead a summary so watered-down that Garcia disavowed it and quit. U.S. authorities last week tied FIFA general secretary Jèr‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me Valcke to $10 million in money transfers into a fund ostensibly intended for the development of soccer in the Caribbean, but which prosecutors charge was in fact a payoff, pocketed by Warner, from South Africa to win support for its '10 World Cup bid. (FIFA officials dispute any involvement in that deal by Valcke or by Blatter; they instead fingered a finance committee chairman who happens to have died last year.) By last week the FBI had indicated that it would join Swiss authorities in investigating the circumstances of Qatar's '22 bid, as well as Russia's campaign for the '18 World Cup, which is also suspected of vote-buying.
FIFA appears to be so constitutionally corrupt that no single component—not the president; not the 209 national federations that elected him; not the elite, 24-member executive committee, the vaunted "ExCo" where the ill-getting of handsome gains was particularly good—could keep the 2022 World Cup from initially being awarded to Qatar. And while the chairman of FIFA's compliance committee has said that evidence of bribery in the bidding process could lead to the stripping of hosting rights, that Cup, if it survives, figures to make the Sochi Olympics look like a pageant of frugality and sustainability. At least a half-dozen stadiums, destined to become white elephants, are being built from scratch by migrant workers subject to the emirate's regime of kafala labor, which Human Rights Watch likens to indentured servitude. To keep players from expiring in the summer heat, the event will take place in the winter, which will sabotage the schedules of European national competitions and the Champions League.
An organization avowedly devoted to the best interests of soccer instead sacrifices human lives and the game itself on the altar of greed for one reason: patronage politics. Because all the member nations have an equal voice in picking FIFA's chief executive, their support can be cashed in for such things as grants from FIFA's Goal program, ostensibly to grow the game around the world. But as the feds made clear with their indictment, much of that money is siphoned off before it can be spent on the ground. That's how Havelange assembled (and his protègè inherited) the reliable blocs of voters, especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia, which allowed both men to consolidate and extend their power. Yet to suggest breaking apart the one-nation, one-vote basis on which FIFA conducts its affairs, even in the name of reform, is to invite charges of racism or imperialism.
The governance of international sports is confoundingly opaque, conducted largely in a shadow world of hotel suites and private jets by men in dandruff-flecked suits. But it matters, and the FIFA scandal shows why. If, as human rights groups estimate, as many as 4,000 laborers will die in Qatar while working on infrastructure projects by the time the first Arab World Cup kicks off, any fan who flicks on the TV (to say nothing of the sponsors underwriting the entire Fitzcarraldian spectacle) will be complicit in a moral abomination. Next month the IOC will award the 2022 Winter Olympics to either Beijing or Almaty, Kazakhstan, essentially because Oslo withdrew its bid after Norwegians blanched at Sochi's graft-inflated $50 billion price tag. Never mind that in '10 Vancouver staged its Winter Olympics for only $7 billion, or that Norway regularly ranks near the top of indices of transparency and business ethics. If Norway—one of the world's richest countries and the most successful nation in Winter Olympic history—refuses to host them, the Games will be left to the tender mercies of undemocratic nations or petrostates like China and Kazakhstan, at ever-mounting cost in lucre and lives. And the unvirtuous circle will continue.
FOR MANY Americans who love soccer, the romance goes beyond Saturday-morning appointment viewing at the corner bar or the arch dropping of Anglicisms like kit and top of the table. It extends to a broad solidarity with the international fan and his populist attitude—to hate the suits and love the sport in equal measure. We throw on the scarves, sing the songs and dog-ear our copies of Fever Pitch, but we also stand with anyone who feels as tortured by the sport's kleptocrats as by the failures of our respective star-crossed clubs or inept national sides. So it's a measure of the game's coming of age in the U.S. that attorney general Loretta Lynch and her gumshoes chose to turn their attention to the sport, and that America's first homegrown international soccer baddie comes in the form of a Yankee grotesque.
The New Yorker whose cooperation helped the feds break the case kept a second Trump Tower apartment for his rambunctious cats. He maintained a fleet of motorized scooters, the better to convey his 450 pounds to and from the high-end restaurants around Manhattan that ensured the maintenance of his girth. With a shoulder sometimes graced by that macaw (which an ex-wife reportedly trained to say, "You're a dope"), all he needed was a Jolly Roger eye patch and tricorn hat to complete the picture of ransacking privateer. That this former general secretary of CONCACAF and longtime FIFA ExCo member (who betrayed Warner and used a key chain, wired to record sound, to ensnare others) goes by a comic-book name—Chuck Blazer!—only increases the odds that soccer's reckoning will continue to be followed as closely in the U.S. as it is around the world. The scandal, in fact, briefly accounted for the seven most popular stories on The New York Times' website.
No word yet on whether Roger Bennett and Michael Davies will bring legal action against Blazer for sullying their good name. But the fact that we can knowingly invoke the hosts of Men in Blazers—that Rog and Davo have the cultural currency once owned by Frank, Howard and Dandy Don—demonstrates how much the ground beneath American soccer has shifted since the U.S. hosted the World Cup two decades ago. "Our visitors come bearing a cherished gift," we wrote in these pages on the eve of the 1994 tournament. "This World Cup thing, it matters to them. As we watch them demonstrate how much, a surprising thing may happen: It may end up mattering to us."
The first seven days of what's being called the Zurich Spring proved that soccer does indeed matter to us. The American inflections to the FIFA scandal and our fascination with them—the sun of Loretta Lynch, the shadow of Chuck Blazer—show that we are, at long last, a footballing nation. And now that we care, we share in the stakes, which are nothing less than the disinfection and rehabilitation of the sport.