This is surely the beginning of the end of FIFA as we know it.
Following the extraordinary arrests of nine FIFA officials in Switzerland on Wednesday, on a litany of charges of corruption, bribery, and racketeering whose veracity cannot be doubted by anyone even remotely acquainted with the sordid shenanigans of world soccer's governing body, it appears that the global cabal FIFA President Sepp Blatter has constructed is about to come crashing down.
To be sure, it would be unwise to dismiss Blatter too quickly. He has presided over FIFA since 1998, cultivating a system of political patronage — based on the way FIFA distributes its revenues to member nations — that ensures a good majority of them will continue to support him. He has remained firmly in power despite numerous scandals in the past, and FIFA is already trying to spin the arrests as part of an internal effort to clean house. And until Wednesday, he was expected to sail to a fifth term in a vote on Friday, facing only minimal opposition largely from FIFA's European member nations.
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But this time is different. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the agency behind the charges, is bringing the full weight of American law upon FIFA for the first time. Swiss authorities are cooperating, and are expected to extradite the suspects to the U.S. The mega-corporations that have long underwritten Blatter's empire, whose money was used to line his cronies' pockets, can no longer hide behind the feel-good sheen of the beautiful game; if they want to protect their brands, they must demand reform and transparency. And who knows what those nine arrested FIFA officials will say once the FBI puts the squeeze on them — perhaps even leading to evidence of corruption by Blatter himself.
Just as importantly, mere hours after the arrests, Swiss prosecutors opened criminal proceedings to investigate the circumstances surrounding Russia and Qatar's winning bids to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively. It has long been suspected that bribery was involved, but FIFA squelched its own internal investigation of the matter, in a manner so clumsy and so obviously fraudulent that it invited new comparisons between Blatter and tinpot dictators.
The Swiss investigation could not come at a better time. These World Cups, particularly the one in Qatar, represent the apotheosis of FIFA's corruption, threatening to stain the game itself, implicate its fans in gross ethical dilemmas, and toss out nearly a century of tradition. The bidding must be done again, and if it is too late, then the World Cups in 2018 and 2022 should be hosted in countries that already have the infrastructure to absorb a massive sporting event, such as the United States, which was among the countries that lost the 2022 bid to Qatar.
The corruption, in more nascent form, was already seen in the two previous World Cups, in Brazil in 2014 and in South Africa in 2010. Both tournaments were hosted amidst widespread protests over the enormous amount of money that was being invested in new stadiums and infrastructure, at FIFA's demand and at the expense of poor populations that sorely needed it. And for what? As Jere Longman of The New York Times writes, this is what FIFA does these days: "FIFA has been accused of running a kind of strip-mining operation, removing with its corporate partners much of the profit and leaving the host countries with stadiums that are seldom used — discarded stage sets for an international television audience."
The protests, of course, were forgotten as soon as the opening whistle of the first game sounded. Soccer fans, including this one, got caught up in the drama of the tournaments. And anyway, wasn't this an issue for the Brazilians and South Africans to resolve? What did it have to do with the rest of us?
But in retrospect, these controversies appear to be part of a larger, more disturbing pattern. To borrow the example of another quadrennial athletic extravaganza, there's a reason why no one but autocrats want to host the Olympics anymore. As Timothy McGrath of Global Post has written, "Hosting the games has become such a massive, expensive, and unpopular chore that it's getting harder to convince anybody to do it." Except, of course, the regimes that use such events to disburse taxpayer funds to their henchmen and that need the prestige of sport to boost their tainted international reputations.
The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi were a notorious example of this, with Russian President Vladimir Putin racking up the most expensive tab ever for an Olympics by spreading tens of billions of dollars to his friends. Does anyone expect the 2018 World Cup to be any different?
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar is even more problematic. The Qatari regime has used virtual slave labor to build new stadiums and roads (at a projected cost of $100 billion), and many migrant laborers have died. Is this to be subsidized by ticket-paying fans? Furthermore, the tournament itself has been pushed to November and December for the first time in history, to accommodate the fact that Qatar reneged on its promise to build stadiums with the cutting-edge cooling technologies that would make a soccer tournament viable in the desert summertime heat.
This would be smack in the middle of the European league season. While it is arguably worthwhile to upend tradition in the name of hosting the World Cup in the Middle East, it is not worth doing to accommodate a serial human rights violator that is literally building its tournament on the backs of the world's most desperate people.
Everyone who isn't a direct beneficiary of Blatter's regime agrees that he should be gone, and that FIFA should be overhauled root and branch. And if the World Cup, the world's greatest sporting event, wants to maintain a semblance of integrity as it proceeds into the 21st century, then it must be held in venues that aren't teeming with dirty money and hellish labor conditions.
The U.S. has the stadiums. It has the roads and airports. It has hospitable environmental conditions for playing soccer, which you think would be a primary requisite for a World Cup. And it has shown genuine interest, even recruiting Bill Clinton to help lead its 2022 bid. Why not? It's certainly better than the alternative.
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