Going ahead with its presidential election despite a week of indictments and arrests of nine key executives, FIFA was absolutely unrepentant in re-electing Sepp Blatter to his fifth term as the head of its organization. 133 of 206 voting members voted for the entrenched incumbent, almost all certainly hailing from nations that rarely ever see their national teams reach the World Cup. For most of his tenure Blatter has had Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, and Oceania all locked up in his corner, and despite employing a secret ballot it requires no leap of the imagination to see that these three regions solidly circled the wagons to hand Blatter another four years at the helm.
It certainly makes sense from a self-preservation standpoint. The dirty laundry is already beginning to be hauled out of the dank recesses of the closet and back into the light of day, with the Justice Department unsealing its indictment of 14 defendants either directly or indirectly involved with FIFA on 47 counts related to graft, bribery, kickbacks, and financial foul play in the organization. The defendants were rounded up in Switzerland on Wednesday and face extradition to the United States, as the dominoes begin to fall on the decades of corruption that have been endemic within the international body of football and among the leadership of its continental and national federations.
But none of that matters when there is a coronation to be held and an emperor to confirm. No amount of bad publicity or scandal can halt a
jubilee FIFA Congress or cause it to be rescheduled — not that a delay would have done anything but forestall the inevitability that Blatter’s patronage of FIFA would continue for another term.
Is Blatter guilty himself of siphoning money for himself? Given his predilection for power, it is wholly possible that he did not directly take bribes or kickbacks. And the case against FIFA predates Blatter’s first election victory in 1998. Yet he was still part of the inner circle of power when the indiscretions began, and it was on his watch that the scandals escalated to fever pitch.
The U.S. indictment hinges on the exchange of under-the-table money for exclusive broadcast rights that mainly centers on the two continental federations in the Americas, CONCACAF (North America, Central America, and the Caribbean) and CONMEBOL (South America), and improprieties in how their officials distributed favors to key marketers and broadcasters. The case dates back to 1991, when it is alleged that the kickbacks began to pour in to the main players at the highest levels of national and regional federations, piling up to the tune of $150 million. Along the way votes were bought, money was funneled through dummy corporations, and a select handful of movers and shakers bloated themselves on the largesse of clientelism and corrupted negotiations. The potential for this case to expose major improprities within FIFA is very real, with the nine arrested executives potentially holding more dirt to go after bigger game in the hierarchy.
Ultimately, though, this case feels like the tip of the iceberg. The Swiss government, in the wake of assisting the Justice Department with the arrests and extradition process that transpired this week, announced the opening of their own investigation into FIFA’s World Cup bid process for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments that were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively. Given that FIFA is based in Switzerland, this case could be the real turning point in the ongoing saga of graft and greed that has pervaded the organization. Or, just as likely, this will ultimately lead to sacrificing scapegoats within the halls of power without extricating the final control away from the man in the driver’s seat.
Even as Blatter and his cronies celebrate another successful extension of their control over the global game, FIFA continues to face heat from an ever-increasing number of angles. Beyond the U.S. and Swiss investigations, more damning news came out today when the Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport alleged that referees at the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan were bribed to explicitly favor the Korean hosts in matches against Italy and Spain during their surprising run to the semifinals and a fourth-place finish.
One gets the feeling at this point that allegations are going to continue to surface over the coming weeks and months, as rogue actors and whistleblowers are increasingly emboldened to expose the entrenchment of exploitative practices within FIFA’s executive leadership. We haven’t learned anything yet, and neither have the people who had the power today to make a strong statement about who controls football moving forward. That they spoke emphatically in favor of Blatter is a referendum that the status quo seems to be suiting his power base just fine, and nothing that has come to light so far will be enough to topple the organization. Though the sordid details continue to pile up and the heat continues to rise, it is merely business as usual at FIFA.