According to a recent report in the New York Times (the “Times”), after years of investigations and indictments, the United States Department of Justice (“DOJ”) handed down an indictment on April 6, 2020, charging representatives working for Russia and Qatar with bribing FIFA (the governing body of world soccer) officials to secure hosting rights for men’s soccer in the World Cup. Additionally, three media executives and a sports marketing company were charged with numerous crimes – including wire fraud and money laundering – in connection with bribes to secure television and marketing rights for international soccer tournaments.
In fact, according to a story by The Guardian – a British daily newspaper – the FIFA corruption case produced charges against over forty individuals and entities as a part of the DOJ’s continued long investigation of bribery in world soccer. The investigation was dramatically announced at a dawn raid in 2015 in Zurich on the eve of a congress of FIFA’s governing body.
At a trial in 2017, the former heads of football in Brazil and Paraguay were each found guilty of accepting millions in bribes. During the 2017 trial, the DOJ’s star witness, a former marketing director who pleaded guilty to corruption charges, implicated the two former officials. Both are facing up to twenty years in prison.
In the recent case announced on April 6, U.S. prosecutors revealed explicit details about money paid to five members of FIFA’s top board ahead of the board’s 2010 vote to choose Russia and Qatar as World Cup hosts. Millions of dollars were allegedly paid. Officials at the Russian soccer federation and at FIFA did not initially respond to a request by the Times for comment. Qatar has long denied any allegations of misconduct amidst a number of accusations since it began bidding for soccer’s biggest tournament.
These latest charges follow decades-long investigations of FIFA and broadcast officials resulting in numerous trials and plea agreements. Most of the investigations involve deals between FIFA sports marketing groups and broadcast corporations for the television rights to air the World Cup and other international soccer tournaments, along with the awarding of bids to host the tournaments.
Much has been written over the years about the depth of the corruption culture within FIFA. According to writer Graham Dunbar, for more than twenty years “some soccer officials acted as if they were entitled to kickbacks from broadcasting and sponsorship deals. And they acted as if they were untouchable by sports judicial bodies, despite warning signs from criminal and civil court cases that touched FIFA in Switzerland…” However, rather than effectively deal with the entire corrupt culture within its ranks, FIFA – the largest sports federation in the world – has instead attempted to deflect widespread corruption allegations by finding and suspending a few individuals.
Former president of FIFA, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, led the organization while soccer increased in global popularity and became financially successful beyond imagination. Nevertheless, according to Dunbar, during Blatter’s time at FIFA, “he basically served as the head of a shadow nation-state that doesn’t ‘govern’ world soccer so much as it plunders countries that want to host the World Cup.”
Yet, in a stunning development recently announced on April 11, Blatter’s World Cup corruption case was dropped by a Swiss prosecutor. This case had been one of two criminal cases pending against him. In the second case, Blatter is accused of having arranged the illegal payment of two million Swiss francs – approximately two million and seventy thousand dollars-to the then Union of European Football Association president Michel Platini in February, 2011. The Swiss Office of the Attorney General said its investigation into this case is not affected by its decision to close the first case.
Evaluating the news of these recent events, we are reminded not to forget FIFA, soccer, the World Cup, Blatter and other associated individuals and entities when we consider the long list of sports, athletes, and governing associations and individuals which have been corrupted by greed and other scandals. As we now adjust and move forward with our lives largely devoid of any entertainment provided by sports, one question deserves further reflection: Do we really want them back without the implementation of widespread changes to ensure integrity and a lack of corruption? Or, is that simply too much to ask…