Wednesday, May 27, 2015

FIFA Gets Served

Wow. What a morning it has been. Let's start with a recap of what happened.

This morning in Zurich, Switzerland, less than 24 hours before the beginning of FIFA’s annual executive committee meetings, six FIFA officials were arrested by plain clothes Swiss law enforcement agents on orders by the United States’ federal courts. This is the culmination of a four year long investigation into bribery charges spearheaded by the FBI.

These six are part of 14 different FIFA officials and sports marketing/promotions executives based on the USA and Latin America that are being charged with allegations of bribery, racketeering, and money laundering. The estimated total of the money exchanged in these crimes is in excess of $100 million in US funds. Full details, including the names of those being indicted, can be found in this story from the New York Times. The US Department of Justice has also released a statement.

The best news in all of this is that FIFA is finally being held legally responsible for its long known history of corruption, bribery, and other scummy behavior.

There are conflicting reports, but they seem to suggest that this has to do with tournaments in Latin America, with some suspicion that this may have to do with the Copa America centennial tournament being held in the USA next summer.

In a completely unrelated move, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice has reportedly opened criminal proceedings related to the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. They have seized digital documents related to the bidding for both tournaments. Various British news outlets, including The Guardian and Richard Conway of the BBC, are reporting that they are questioning “people unknown” about the bidding processes. The Swiss Federal Council has released a statement on the matter.

Clearly, this is a huge story that will continue developing for quite some time. But, let’s digest what we already know. A federal investigation has been going on for quite some time related to the transfer of money through US banks in US funds that appears to have been used to bribe various officials within FIFA. Several people have been arrested in a foreign country and are likely going to be extradited back to the US, so the evidence must be pretty solid. Finally, the Swiss government is looking into criminal charges related to the next two World Cups in Russia and Qatar. As of their morning press conference in Zurich, the hosts of both tournaments will not change.

The early public reaction has been quite supportive of the government agencies doing the dirty work brining down FIFA. Everyone knows FIFA is extremely corrupt. Everyone knows that things need to change within the organization. And now many people are hopeful of FIFA’s future for the first time in a long, long time.

Although this is already quite a lot of progress, there is hope that this is only the beginning of high level organizations coming down hard on world soccer’s governing body. There could be hope that since the USA’s federal investigators can lay hands on some pretty important people in FIFA and Switzerland can open a criminal case against them, other governments may be able to follow suit and bring them down on other issues. There’s hope that this can lead to positive change that could help root out the corrupt people that run the most powerful sporting organization in the universe. There is also the looming dark cloud that this is all just a pipe dream.

FIFA has been challenged by various parties before, and it still stands tall with the same bad apples running the show. Sepp Blatter, who has been president for 17 years, is fully expected to win another term in the next round of elections despite the breaking of this news. The vote is supposed to be held on Friday despite reports out there suggesting it might be delayed.

FIFA very well could slip right through this scandal without any serious repercussions. The six men arrested today, and the reportedly eight more coming, could walk away unscathed from all this just because FIFA is very good at wriggling its way out of serious trouble. The Swiss investigation could run into dead ends, because FIFA is also adept at misdirection and the concealment of information (see the Garcia report summary).

This history makes me feel like I have to pump the brakes a bit on any “down with Sepp Blatter” and “FIFA is imploding” talk. I am excited, for lack of a better term, about what went down, and continues to go down, in Zurich this morning, but I am also cautious in jumping to conclusions. A lot is still going to develop here and we need to wait for more details to emerge before marking today as the beginning of the end for the powers that be in world soccer.

I'll have more on this as it develops, including more thoughts on my weekly post at Big View Sports.

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