For most of the world, pervasive corruption among FIFA officials is considered an unavoidable byproduct of a sport that generates rabid fandom and billions of dollars in revenue. But soccer’s comparatively low profile in the United States, where its popularity pales in comparison to national pastimes like football and baseball, made the U.S. Justice Department uniquely positioned to move against widespread wrongdoing within the sport's international governing body.
“Too many countries are cowed by FIFA,” Alexandra Wrage, a former FIFA ethics advisor, told the BBC. “As with international bribery more generally, the U.S. Department of Justice has said they’ll step up to investigate corruption if others won’t.”
Soccer is a major source of revenue throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the rest of the world. FIFA (the Fédération Internationale de Football Association), along with regional soccer associations such as Europe’s Union of European Football Associations, generate massive sums through the sale of television and event hosting rights. Moreover, countries are willing to spend billions – and, at times, reportedly resort to bribery – to earn the right to host the World Cup, FIFA’s worldwide soccer tournament that happens every four years.
Corrupt dealings related to these rights sales were at the heart of Wednesday’s arrests and indictments of several current and former FIFA officials and marketing executives on charges of corruption, bribery and racketeering. The accused allegedly received more than $150 million in bribes and illegal kickbacks in exchange for preferential treatment on the sale of media and marketing rights and hosting rights for the 2010 World Cup, according to the Justice Department’s press release.
“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States … Today’s action makes clear that this Department of Justice intends to end any such corrupt practices, to root out misconduct, and to bring wrongdoers to justice – and we look forward to continuing to work with other countries in this effort,” U.S. Attorney-General Loretta Lynch said in a statement.
Among the arrested officials was Jeffrey Webb, president of CONCACAF, the body that governs soccer throughout North and South America and has an office in Miami. Swiss authorities also announced a separate criminal investigation into allegations of corruption related to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup’s bidding processes, the New York Times reported.
The involvement of top CONCACAF officials in the corruption case, coupled with evidence that back-room deals and tainted money passed through U.S. soil, were presented as justification for the Justice Department’s investigation. But suspicions among U.S. officials that foreign bribes cost America a shot at hosting the 2022 World Cup may have been the catalyst, sports economist Andrew Zimbalist told the BBC.
Allegations have persisted for months that officials from Russia and Qatar, the countries that earned hosting rights for the two events, used bribes to secure their deals. FIFA hired independent investigator Michael J. Garcia to examine the allegations, and though Garcia found some evidence of wrongdoing, FIFA declined to release his report in its entirety. Garcia resigned in protest.