WASHINGTON – We’re used to seeing soccer players fling themselves to the ground, writhe in feigned agony and complain bitterly about the injustice of it all. Now the international overlords of the game are beginning to do the same.
Metaphorically, I mean. Targeted in a stunning corruption probe led by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, present and former officials of FIFA – the body that controls the World Cup and other major tournaments – are screaming “foul” even as they frantically point fingers at one another. The ugliest side of the “beautiful game” is on display.
“I reasonably, actually fear for my life,” said Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice president, in a melodramatic television address that was broadcast Wednesday in his native Trinidad and Tobago. Charged in a Justice Department indictment with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering, Warner has threatened to release documents implicating others. In a separate speech, Warner declared: “Not even death will stop the avalanche that is coming.”
It’s hard to overstate what a huge story this is around the world, with front pages dominated by photographs of the accused and media websites covering developments in the scandal with breaking-news blogs. There have long been reports of corruption at FIFA, but the extent of the alleged bribery, kickbacks and lavish spending is jaw-dropping.
Why is the American justice system investigating an organization based in Zurich, Switzerland? For one reason, because an American is at the heart of the scandal. In November 2013, Chuck Blazer, a Falstaffian figure who once was a top FIFA official, secretly appeared before a U.S. District Court judge in Brooklyn and copped a plea. Blazer helped prosecutors assemble the case that led to the arrests that took place last week – and those likely to follow.
The Justice Department alleges that the 14 soccer pooh-bahs detained so far accepted more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks over a 24-year period. The scandal, still gathering steam, has already forced FIFA’s powerful longtime president, Sepp Blatter, to announce he will resign.
Blazer admitted conspiring with other members of the FIFA executive committee to take bribes for selecting South Africa to host the World Cup in 2010 and France to host it in 1998. South African police have announced they are investigating whether the country’s national football association paid as much as $10 million in bribes for the right to stage the world’s biggest sporting event.
This raises the obvious question of whether similar bribes were paid to host upcoming World Cup tournaments. In 2018, the venue will be Russia, a country that last year ranked 136 out of 175 in Transparency International’s annual corruption rankings (with No. 1, Denmark, being least corrupt). And in a highly controversial decision, FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, where summertime temperatures can reach 120 degrees.
Perhaps Blazer’s chats with prosecutors or Warner’s “avalanche” of documents will provide answers.
Blazer is a character you couldn’t make up. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he looks like Karl Marx. Blazer has kept a blog that chronicles his life as a jet-setting international soccer executive. From it, we know that he once shared a flight on a private plane with Nelson Mandela, attended the 2012 Super Bowl, enjoys good food and likes cats.
According to stories published last year in the New York Daily News, when Blazer was the head of CONCACAF – the regional soccer federation for North America and the Caribbean – he used his expense accounts to help pay for two apartments in New York’s ritzy Trump Tower: one costing $18,000 a month for himself, and one costing $6,000 a month that was usually occupied only by his cats.
While he was living the high life, Blazer acknowledged in court, he neglected the pedestrian detail of paying his U.S. income taxes. That fact alone gave Lynch – who ran the investigation in Brooklyn before becoming attorney general – reason enough to begin poking around FIFA’s affairs.
But while there has been some grumbling in international media about hegemonic America seeking to impose its will on the rest of the world, there have also been expressions of gratitude. In many other countries, soccer is almost like a religion. The United States can act as a disinterested observer – a referee who calls fouls, shows red cards and perhaps sends people to jail.
I can think of the perfect next job for Lynch. It’s in Zurich and has, I hear, nice benefits.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.