It has been called “the day that FIFA has long dreaded”: the day that decades of graft and a level of ostentatious excess that would make Caligula blush caught up with the international soccer body. Fourteen people, including nine top FIFA officials, have been arrested on corruption charges levied by the US Justice Department. Seven were taken into custody in a dramatic arrest by Swiss law enforcement at a luxury hotel in Zurich. As the late Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano wrote two decades ago, “There are visible and invisible dictators. The power structure of world football is monarchical. It’s the most secret kingdom in the world.”
Well, the kingdom has been cracked open, and no one is sure what we will find out once all the deals have been cut and the whistleblowers have played their tunes. Make no mistake: We may look back upon today as the beginning of the end of FIFA as we know it. All of the 209 member representatives of FIFA had gathered in Zurich for their congress, which was expected to be “a boring affair,” where President Sepp Blatter would coast to re-election. Boring is the last word on anyone’s mind now.
The charges brought include money laundering, wire fraud, and international racketeering that alleges $150 million in bribes going back to the 1990s made by big sports-marketing honchos to get their brands associated with major soccer tournaments, but this will be just the tip of the iceberg. Here is what was said by US attorney general Loretta Lynch: “The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States. It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.” (Lynch said the selection of the United States to host next year’s Copa América was facilitated by $110 million in bribes.)
For those wondering how the Justice Department was able to facilitate these arrests in Switzerland, it used a prosecutorial authority often present in international terror cases. As The New York Times described, “Those cases can hinge on the slightest connection to the United States, like the use of an American bank or Internet service provider Switzerland’s treaty with the United States is unusual in that it gives Swiss authorities the power to refuse extradition for tax crimes, but on matters of general criminal law, the Swiss have agreed to turn people over for prosecution in American courts.”
In this case, the US connection is CONCACAF, headquartered in the United States and, of FIFA’s six regional confederations, the one that includes North America. Described as “an organization clearly in crisis” by Lynch, they are as of now the central focus of the investigation. (This part is important for those following the possible FIFA vote on sanctioning or even expelling Israel for its practices related to detaining players and coaches in the Palestinian Football Association. It is impossible to tell the fate of that vote or any votes based upon the chaos produced by latest charges, but CONCACAF was viewed as Israel’s most reliable defenders in the FIFA body.)