On May 27th the United States Department of Justice issued a 47-count indictment against nine International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) officials and five executives of FIFA-affiliated sports management firms. The charges the United States pressed included racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering amounting to $150-million over a 24-year period. That morning, the Swiss Government also arrested seven of the indicted defendants at a Zurich hotel, while holding them for possible extradition to the United States. The United States and Switzerland also announced that criminal investigations into FIFA's 2010 decisions to award the World Cup to Russia for 2018 and to Qatar for 2022 would continue. Is there a basis for the United States’ allegations of corruption against FIFA officials and affiliated sports executives? Why is the United States involved in issuing indictments against FIFA officials and affiliated sports executives? How will the United States targeting FIFA corruption play out?
International sporting federations (IFs), such as FIFA, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the International Associations of Athletics Federations (IAAF), by definition, are inflicted with corruption. This fact has been well documented over the past several decades by the international media and sports historians and reformers. However, FIFA related corruption should not be a surprise since IFs operate in the United States-dominated neoliberal world-capitalist political-economy, where systemic corruption is quite common among the world's political, financial, and economic power-brokers. Starting in the 1980s, the IFs were increasingly susceptible to corruption, because having previously operated on ‘shoe-string’ budgets, they were re-structured into mega-rich bodies owing to: 1) the influx of massive amounts of revenue from global television conglomerates and corporate sponsorships; and, 2) the agency of ambitious and well-connected federation leadership (for example, FIFA's Joao Havelange [1974-1998] and Sepp Blatter [1998-2015], the IOC's Juan Antonio Samaranch [1981-2000]; and the IAAF's Primo Nebiolo [1981-1999]).
An example of how much revenue FIFA accumulated over this period, the 2002 World Cup generated $1.9-billion; while the 2010 World Cup brought in $3.655-billion and the 2014 World Cup, $4.826-billion. This revenue accrued from contractual agreements selling broadcast rights, corporate sponsorships, and hospitality and licensing rights, as well as from ticket sales. Therefore, the increasing amount of revenue made FIFA a ‘cash cow’ for all involved, including executives, officials, and FIFA headquarters; the host nation's World Cup organizing committees; the six continental/regional football federations; and national associations largely in the Global South through FIFA developmental projects.
Owing to the amount of money to be made, it is not unsurprising that individuals associated with the World Cup organizing committees have delivered ‘under-the-table’ revenue (bribery, kickbacks, etc.) to receptive FIFA officials in order to buy votes to win selection to host the World Cup (and other FIFA organized tournaments). Further, nations that FIFA has selected to host the World Cup in recent years have mainly been ‘emergent market economies’ (BRICS) or petro-monarchies – South Africa (2010); Brazil (2014); Russia (2018); and Qatar (2022) – who were not only eager to host the World Cup (as well as the Olympic Games), but were willing to pay what ever was necessary. By hosting the World Cup, those nation's aimed to: 1) gain international prestige; 2) provide World Cup-connected domestic capitalist interests opportunities to garner huge profits; 3) rally domestic legitimacy for hosting the sporting spectacle; and, 4) carry out targeted infrastructure and commercial development projects. Further, since the 1970s, owing largely to the technological advances in global telecommunications, individuals associated with media conglomerates and transnational corporations have also resorted to illicit means to have access to FIFA members, with the intent to block out their competitors’ access to FIFA decision-makers. And, certainly some FIFA members have been receptive to those initiatives.
Why the United States Has Targeted FIFA
The timing of the United States indictments targeting FIFA is curious. First, as noted above, revelations about alleged FIFA connected corruption has been well reported over the past several decades, and particularly since 2010. Second, the Department of Justice's (DOJ) indictments were issued two-days before FIFA was to conduct a presidential election during its annual general meeting in Zurich, an action which would certainly create havoc among the FIFA delegates. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who had served four terms and who was claimed to be the reason for the alleged corruption, was expected to be re-elected. Third, to claim the jurisdiction to investigate and indict members of the Swiss-based international non-governmental organization the United States utilized the 1970 Racketeering Influence and Corruption Act (RICO Act), which was passed to go after organized criminal activities. Fourth, the FIFA delegates were also scheduled to vote on a Palestinian Football Association petition to expel Israel from FIFA. (That vote was not held.)
Despite the indictments, on May 29 Blatter was re-elected by a margin of 123 to 73, beating the United States-Union of European Football Associations (UEFA)-backed Jordanian Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein. In response, the Western media, British political officials, Michel Platini, the president of the wealthy UEFA, and United States left-oriented sports reformers immediately intensified the assault on Blatter. British politicians, the head of the English Football Association (FA), and Prince William even called for England to boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia owing to alleged corruption concerning the decision to allow Russia to host that tournament. (Four days after his re-election, aware that he was the subject of a United States corruption investigation and probably coerced by FIFA sponsors, Blatter resigned as FIFA President.)
However, why is the United States so concerned about corruption in FIFA? The United States has not been a prominent participant in that organization, nor is soccer a major sport in the country. Furthermore, if the United States Government is so concerned about corruption why hasn't the Obama DOJ issued indictments against the Wall Street executives and politicians who caused the 2008 financial-economic crisis, and who still operate with immunity. Also, every other political, financial, and economic entity in the United State is entangled in some form of systemic corruption, including professional sports leagues and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA); yet the DOJ has not pursued violators from those entities. Above all, what is suspicious about the United States’ intervention into FIFA politics is that whenever the United States intervenes internationally, claiming to be concerned about democracy, good governance, and/or human rights, that intervention proves to be duplicitous; and, that intervention ends up creating conditions much worse than the situation was previously.
Since the individuals referred above, who are involved in much more costly and serious corruption, are not being indicted, it seems that the FIFA indictments are politically motivated. Thus, the most logical conclusion that one can make is that the United States assumed that issuing the indictments prior to FIFA's presidential election might create chaos among FIFA delegates, and this would lead to Blatter not being re-elected. Further, it seems obvious that for the United States Blatter's real crime was that he had insisted that “nothing will get in the way of Russia hosting the best ever World Cup.” Further, the Asian, African, and South American associations, which undermined UEFA's influence in football's governing body, were Blatter's power-base. Therefore, if Prince Ali had been elected FIFA president he probably would have attempted to find a means to strip the World Cup from Russia. The calls to boycott the 2018 World Cup immediately after Blatter was re-elected seems to re-enforce that speculation. If this scenario is accurate, the United States’ objective is not to rid FIFA of corruption, but instead to force ‘regime change’ as a means to prevent Russia from hosting the World Cup. Simply put, the United States’ attack on FIFA is integral to its comprehensive (and reckless) aggression toward Russia, which aims to remove President Vladimir Putin so as to gain hegemony over Russia.
How will the FIFA Crisis Play Out?
Since Sepp Blatter resigned, a situation has been created where the United States-dictated Anglo-American/UEFA alliance will attempt to gain control of FIFA; although that alliance will face strong opposition from pro-Blatter national associations. (Europeans controlled FIFA from its founding, in 1904 to 1974). If the West does gain control, the vote on Russia hosting the World Cup will be re-opened, obviously pressed by constant anti-Russian/Putin propaganda derived from on-going United States and Swiss investigations and indictments. If a pro-West dominated FIFA is unable to strip the World Cup from Russia, there will be a vigorous effort by United States and British politicians for a boycott. What is certain is that the United States will do whatever it has to prevent the World Cup being held in Russia.
Furthermore, getting rid of Blatter will not end corruption in FIFA. And if the Anglo-American/UEFA alliance gains control of FIFA, it would control the distribution of revenues, particularly to national associations that do not follow the United States’ policy dictates, and, the selection of the host nation's for future World Cups. In fact, if this occurred the Global South and Russian football associations might break from FIFA and establish a parallel football federation. Regardless, whatever purging and re-organization of FIFA occurs, FIFA can not be restructured into a transparent-corruption free body as long as it operates in the United States-dominated neoliberal world-capitalist political economy. •
George Wright is Professor Emeritus, California States University, Chico.