Soccer is often called “the beautiful game,” but its worldwide governing body, FIFA, is nothing short of ugly in the way it operates. Even before the Justice Department’s indictments this week of nine current and former FIFA officials on corruption charges, the world had abundant evidence that the Swiss-based international organization governed the world’s most popular sport in the manner of a kleptocracy. Efforts by the United States Soccer Federation (U.S. Soccer) and other well-intentioned national associations to fix this pervasive culture of corruption have failed because FIFA is organized to resist change and is fiercely defended by other powerful plunderers like Russia’s Vladimir Putin. This week’s charges won’t change anything, nor would the potential defeat of current FIFA president Sepp Blatter in the organization’s election. Reformers should stop trying to transform FIFA; instead, they should abandon it and rebuild international football from the ground up.
FIFA began modestly as an organization of eight European football associations in 1904, eventually expanding to include South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, the U.S., and Canada within a decade. Today, it’s composed of 209 national associations and runs one of the world’s most lucrative events: the World Cup. Each country has an equal vote in selecting FIFA’s leadership, and Blatter, who has ruled for 17 years during some of the organization’s worst scandals, distributes FIFA’s riches liberally. This largesse has earned Blatter the loyalty of soccer officials in many nations, especially poorer ones. He’s learned what any politician with his hands on a pork barrel full of money knows: You can buy votes and loyalty. Blatter, who is Swiss, has shamelessly defended his corrupt reign by arguing that attacks on him and FIFA, especially from European and American media, are “racist.”
In a 47-count indictment of 14 individuals, the Justice Department said that FIFA officials had collected a staggering $150 million in bribes and kickbacks from sports-marketing firms for media and marketing rights to international football tournaments. The payoffs involved money that exchanged hands over the selection of South Africa to host the 2010 Men’s World Cup (including $10 million paid to three members of the FIFA selection committee) and kickbacks in exchange for votes in FIFA’s 2011 presidential elections. Officials from Concacaf, the FIFA-affiliated governing body for North and Central America and the Caribbean, also allegedly took bribes in exchange for the rights to World Cup qualifying events, the Gold Cup tournament, and the Concacaf Champions League, a competition among franchises selected from professional leagues in member nations. The indictments cover activities stretching back more than two decades.
And FIFA’s corruption doesn’t end there. FIFA stunned the sports world in late 2010 by simultaneously handing out the rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar, respectively. The selection of Qatar, an oil-rich Mideast country with summer temperatures of 110 degrees and no major soccer-ready venues, was especially suspicious. Last year, the Sunday Times of London published an exposé based on leaked documents that showed that Qatar’s top soccer official used a slush fund to make more than $5 million in bribes to secure his country’s bid for the World Cup. FIFA hired former U.S. attorney Michael Garcia to investigate allegations of corruption regarding both bids but then refused to release his report. Garcia has since resigned in protest. Several years earlier, a Swiss court investigating the disappearance of funds from a FIFA-affiliated sports-marketing firm fined FIFA for intentionally misleading detectives examining the case. And in 2011, one of those indicted yesterday, former FIFA vice president Jack Warner, resigned from the organization after being accused of bribery. Blatter spiked any investigation into the incident.
U.S. Soccer should extract itself from this morass of corruption. FIFA has eagerly eyed the riches it can haul away from soccer’s growing popularity in the United States. As FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said during the 2014 World Cup, “There is a commitment to work with U.S. Soccer. What we see in the United States is staggering.” One item in the indictments suggests the attraction of the American market. Among the events allegedly used by officials to solicit bribes is the 2016 Copa América Centenario—the 100th anniversary of a competition for national teams from South America. To celebrate, executives at the FIFA-affiliated South American Football Confederation (Conmebol) decided to hold the tournament in the U.S., because this is where they could cash in. And they did. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said kickbacks for the media and marketing rights to the tournament totaled $110 million.
Fans, journalists, and soccer officials naively hope that the newest accusations signal the end of Blatter and this reign of corruption. FIFA has been wracked by scandals for years, including charges of corruption and bribery against Blatter’s predecessor, João Havelange. A Swiss court determined that Havelange received kickbacks totaling 41 million Swiss francs over a period of eight years. And, as the current indictments make clear, corruption at FIFA extends to the affiliated organizations that manage the sport’s affairs on separate continents. Moreover, FIFA has powerful enablers like Putin to defend it. The Russian president has branded the U.S. indictments a political power play.
The U.S. can’t transform world soccer by itself. But if America exits FIFA along with other persistent critics—like Germany, England, France, and other frustrated European football federations—FIFA’s competitive and financial structure would crumble. Then the world could go about reconstituting a new soccer order with more checks, balances, and safeguards against corruption. One obvious reform would be to separate the grants of development money to poor nations from the political meddling of elected leaders.
U.S. Soccer is organized as a nonprofit “to promote and govern” soccer in the United States. With nonprofit status comes privileges, not the least of which is being exempt from taxes, including on U.S. Soccer’s operating surplus—which totaled $7 million last year. But with privileges also come obligations, and U.S. Soccer has one: to stop serving as a conduit through which a relentlessly corrupt international organization fleeces the American public.