My dictionary defines a scandal as “an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing public outrage.” By that yardstick it isn’t clear that the numerous allegations of wrongdoing by officials of FIFA, which stages the soccer World Cup and other international events in the sport, qualifies for the epithet.
Yeah, those guys probably stuffed their pockets to overflowing and beyond, but did they break any laws in the process? And did their actions cause public outrage? Aside from the parsons of the press box, I haven’t noticed many people who are expressing disgust or even surprise at what’s been revealed. It’s business as usual over there in Zurich, I and, I think, most others believe.
What’s been in the papers certainly sounds bad. Last May the U.S. Justice Department announced the indictments on racketeering charges of nine FIFA operatives and five corporate executives with whom they did business in what it said was a 24-year scheme that involved bribes and kickbacks worth about $150 million. Some of those named already have pleaded guilty and can be expected to testify against some or all of the rest, meaning that chances for convictions are good.
Then last month the Swiss police stepped up and announced they were looking into a criminal bribery charge involving Sepp Blatter, FIFA president since 1998, who last year was elected to a fifth, four-year term. Blatter had announced his resignation after the U.S. indictments were handed down but said it wouldn’t be effective until well into next year, obviously in the hope that the thing would blow over and he’d be allowed to stick around. Not much chance of that now.
The cherry atop that particular sundae is that the party of the second part in Blatter’s suspected scheme is Michel Platini, the former star player who’s the head of UEFA, the game’s European overseer, and an announced “reform” candidate to succeed Blatter when the election finally comes off. Both men have been suspended from their offices for 90 days pending the results of the probe, but the point remains that in FIFA even a scorecard can’t help you separate the reformers from the crooks.
What’s happening in FIFA (which stands for Federation Internationale de Football Association) pretty much mirrors what’s happened in the International Olympic Committee, another dubious international sports organization domiciled in Switzerland. Over the last half century—but especially in the last 20 years—both groups have been inundated with cash, mostly from the soaring value of TV rights to their attractions. As a gauge, check out U.S. rights sales alone: in 1990 TNT paid $7.75 million to televise that year’s World Cup, while this year Fox paid $425 million for rights to the 2018 and 2022 editions. Last year FIFA reportedly took in $2.4 billion in world TV rights fees and another $1.6 billion in sponsorship deals with companies eager to bathe in the World Cup glow. The Olympics reap even larger returns. When it’s raining money like that it’s no wonder many umbrellas are turned upside down.
The IOC wraps itself in a flag and such lofty goals as the promotion of sportsmanship and world amity. For a long time it purported to be run by volunteers (no longer), but the hands-out rep of its honchos was well known. It culminated in revelations that resulted in the ouster of 10 executive committee members for taking bribes tied to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Its president from 1980 through 2001 was the lordly Juan Antonio Samaranch, a former functionary of Franco Spain whose non-paid status was belied by the $1.5 million-a-year hotel suite the IOC maintained for him in its headquarters city of Lausanne. Samaranch demanded that he be treated like a head of state and addressed as “your excellency.” Neither he nor any other IOC big shot ever got off the back of a plane.
The 79-year-old Blatter has kept a lower profile. Although you’d never know it from his obtuse public statements, he’s a public-relations man by trade who got into sports bureaucracy through the Swiss ice hockey federation. His best career move came in 1981 when he married the daughter of FIFA’s secretary general, its No. 2 post. That same year he had that job himself, and got the top one 17 years later.
All 209 national members of FIFA have the same vote whatever their populations or rankings in the sport. Blatter has kept power largely through the “development grants” he’s empowered to issue to promote soccer in small countries. If the organization’s culture is a guide, much of that money sticks in the pockets of local satraps, who reciprocate by hugging Blatter and giving him political support.
FIFA’s doings got mostly local notice until 2010 when, in a swoop, it awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar. Russia under the odious Vladimir Putin is a kleptocracy where nothing much happens without money changing hands. Qatar is a lump of hot sand on top of Persian Gulf oil with no soccer tradition and a population of 1.8 million people, about as many as in metropolitan Nashville, Tennessee. That award stunk from so many angles that FIFA’s own ethics committee felt moved to investigate, and it issued a report that was said to be critical of the bidding process. Blatter stepped in, though, and the document was squelched.
Still, the question of who has been hurt by FIFA misdeeds isn’t easily answered. The TV networks whose money fuels the organization and corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Visa and McDonalds are savvy international players who know how business is done around the world. Their recent, belated demand that Blatter step down immediately only goes to show they’d rather be robbed than embarrassed.
What probably bothers Blatter most about mess he’s in is the participation of the Swiss authorities. It’s no accident that both FIFA and the IOC are based in that land-locked land, where banking secrecy is an economic pillar and extradition of citizens for financial crimes isn’t easily granted. When only U.S. prosecutors were involved his supporters could write off their actions as sour grapes over the loss of the 2022 Cup (as Putin did publicly, while recommending Blatter for a Nobel Prize), but, evidently, he’s also done something to upset the home folks. The earthy old saw “don’t, uh, defecate where you eat” seems to hold in Switzerland, too.