A legal strategy on soccer.

Photographer: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images

FIFA Awakened a U.S. Giant

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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The U.S. is not the world's most soccer-loving nation. Yet it is U.S. law enforcement that is suddenly at the forefront of the attack on soccer's global governing body. Today it indicted nine current and former FIFA officials for allegedly taking part in a corruption scheme that's been going on for 24 years.

Why would that be? Perhaps the experience the Americans had with FIFA four and a half years ago opened their eyes to the problem. On Dec. 2, 2010, the executive committee of the International Federation of Football Associations voted to hold the World Cup in Russia in 2018 and in Qatar in 2022. These countries' strongest rivals were, respectively, the U.K. and the U.S. 

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron was emotional about his country's shocking defeat. He said he was "bitterly disappointed" and pointed out that England's bid had received the best technical evaluation from FIFA. "It turns out that's not enough," Cameron fumed. President Barack Obama, in contrast, was content to call FIFA's decision "wrong." (Former President Bill Clinton, who'd presented the U.S. bid in Zurich, reportedly threw an ornament at a wall mirror, shattering the glass.)

Cameron's emotions and Obama's reserve could be easily explained by the relative popularity of soccer in their two countries. Only 27 million people in the U.S. watched the final game of the 2014 World Cup, compared with 20 million in the U.K., which has one-fifth the population. So it also was understandable that the British news media, in the years after the vote, kept up the pressure on FIFA. The Sunday Times obtained a trove of documents pointing at large-scale graft in the soccer governing body.

None of this, however, did any damage to Sepp Blatter, now almost through his fourth consecutive four-year term as FIFA president. In 2012, FIFA hired former U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia to look into the corruption charges and, two years later, Garcia delivered a 350-page report. But FIFA didn't publish it in full, saying it contained nothing that would require re-votes on Russia or Qatar. Blatter announced his decision to run for a fifth term.

Then, today, a U.S.-made bomb went off: Swiss police arrested six FIFA functionaries in the posh Zurich hotel Baur au Lac, where they'd checked in ahead of the vote, and later picked up another. All seven now await extradition to the U.S. 

It turned out that while U.K. fans, politicians and journalists cursed FIFA -- and, after a passenger plane was downed by pro-Russia fighters over eastern Ukraine, then-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg called for stripping Russia of the right to host the 2018 World Cup -- the U.S. FBI and tax authorities were quietly unraveling FIFA's web of corruption.

The investigation, according to the Swiss Federal Office of Justice, began in 2011 -- soon after the U.S. bid failed. It appears that the failure alerted U.S. officials to fishy goings-on at FIFA. The American bid had rather obvious advantages over the Qatari one. While the tiny Gulf state had no soccer infrastructure to speak of -- it would need to build nine stadiums of the required 12 -- the U.S. had offered 18 fully functional stadiums. It also offered twice as many hotel rooms as Qatar and a climate that would have allowed the tournament to be played in the summer, as is customary, rather than in November, as Qatar's weather conditions require.

Unlike European countries, the U.S. never officially called for a re-vote. It did, however, indict FIFA officials from the Western hemisphere, who allegedly made deals in the U.S. and used American banks. Instead of complaining and accusing, in other words, it strode in with guns blazing just when Blatter was about to win his fifth term as FIFA president.

FIFA spokesman Walter De Gregorio said today that Blatter was "relaxed," because FIFA had itself instigated a Swiss investigation into its affairs, which is running parallel to the U.S. one. That's not Blatter's biggest problem, however. When U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch speaks of "rampant, systemic and deep-rooted" corruption in FIFA, and the Justice Department warns that the indictments are "not the final chapter," it means that American law enforcement is looking to dismantle the cozy old-boy hierarchy that Blatter has learned to play since he joined FIFA in 1975. More scandal and arrests lie ahead, and Blatter will not be able to sweep them under the rug.

"The game is in us," Obama said in his video message to the FIFA executive committee in December 2010. The U.S. may not be ready to play for the world soccer championship, but if it loses, it wants to lose fair. Blatter will now need to acknowledge that he and the system he has built have failed. He may still have the support of most of FIFA's 209 members and, if the vote takes place on Friday (as FIFA says it will), he may still win. Nevertheless, his days at the top of FIFA are numbered.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net