World Soccer Rocked As Corruption Indictments Target Top Executives

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FIFA's Zurich headquarters
Photo: SEBASTIEN BOZON

Several top officials in FIFA, world soccer’s multi-billion-dollar governing body, were arrested today in Switzerland and will now be extradited to the U.S. to face corruption charges. According to the New York Times, the Justice Department alleges that, over the past few decades, these officials were involved in racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering conspiracies related to the World Cup bidding process, as well as broadcast and marketing deals. A total of 14 people have been indicted, including nine FIFA officials (two of whom were on the organization’s executive committee), and five sports marketing executives. Swiss police say they have taken six people into custody.

While the actual charges and subsequent arrests have come as a surprise, FIFA’s leadership has long been disliked by soccer fans around the world, and both accusations and documentation of widespread corruption have long plagued the organization, with particular suspicion directed at the recent winning bids by Russia and Qatar to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments. These indictments, however, seem to implicate the entire system used to run the world’s most popular sport. As a U.S. law enforcement official said to the Times, “We’re struck by just how long this went on for and how it touched nearly every part of what FIFA did. It just seemed to permeate every element of the federation and was just their way of doing business. It seems like this corruption was institutionalized.” The Times goes on:

Critics of FIFA point to the lack of transparency regarding executive salaries and resource allocations for an organization that, by its own admission, had revenue of $5.7 billion from 2011 to 2014. Policy decisions are also often taken without debate or explanation, and a small group of officials — known as the executive committee — operates with outsize power. FIFA has for years operated with little oversight and even less transparency.

How significantly these new charges will impact the organization and sport remains to be seen, but it could be transformative. The arrests come as FIFA was about to hold its annual meeting in Zurich, and the most powerful person in world soccer, FIFA president Sepp Blatter (who was not among those charged), had been expected to win reelection on Friday. As the Times notes, he now may have to worry about his arrested colleagues providing new information to authorities about FIFA’s inner workings. In addition, USA Today is now reporting that Swiss authorities have themselves launched a criminal probe into the bidding process behind the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and have seized documents and computers from FIFA’s Zurich headquarters. But all that being the case, as Deadspin’s Kevin Draper points out, “FIFA has weathered numerous storms in the past”:

When you control the most popular product of the most popular sport on earth, you can do that. Neither the shady awarding of World Cups nor the thousands of slaves that will die in Qatar building World Cup stadiums has made a serious dent in FIFA’s power. One can only hope this will.

For an entertaining summary of just how much FIFA had this coming, revisit this spirited John Oliver rant from last year:

This post has been updated throughout to reflect new developments in the story.