FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, has always hoped to get America more involved in their sport. Well, they’ve succeeded. In a sudden and stunning move, the Justice Department charged 14 soccer officials and sports-marketing executives with “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted” corruption.
Seven were promptly arrested by Swiss authorities in Zurich, where FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, is gathering for its annual general meeting. At the same time, Swiss prosecutors announced their own criminal investigation into FIFA’s puzzling simultaneous award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar, seizing electronic data and documents at FIFA headquarters. On social media, the consensus was that the flurry of arrests was long overdue.
As it has always done when confronted with allegations or evidence of corruption, FIFA declared that the investigations were good for the organization and that FIFA was fully cooperating. Sepp Blatter, the 79-year-old Swiss citizen who has run FIFA since 1998, saw no reason not to run for a fifth term on Friday and showed no intention of revisiting the choice of Russia or Qatar.
Those selections immediately raised suspicion of foul play when they were announced in December 2010, and the controversy has only deepened with reports about the appalling treatment of foreign laborers working on World Cup facilities in the blistering heat of Qatar. Hundreds of migrant workers, many from Nepal and other South Asian countries, have died in conditions that have violated international labor laws and human rights.
The surprise of the day was not only the arrests and the investigations, but also that Washington would take such aggressive action against officials of a sport that is notably less popular in the United States than elsewhere in the world. In fact, the American indictments were largely the fruit of an investigation into large-scale bribery and kickbacks in the organization of tournaments by Concacaf, the FIFA-affiliated governing body of soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean, which has its headquarters in Miami. Four officials have pleaded guilty, and one of the four has been cooperating with investigators.
The other American connection is Michael Garcia, a former United States attorney who was asked by FIFA to look into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments. The 450-page report he submitted last year was effectively shelved by FIFA. But not by Swiss authorities or the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which until recently was headed by Loretta Lynch, the new U.S. attorney general, who announced the indictments.
The legal actions announced Wednesday are the start of what are certain to be long extradition proceedings, trials and other legal processes in Switzerland and the United States. But there is no need to wait for a thorough cleansing of the FIFA stables. For years, critics have assailed what one called the “byzantine and impenetrable” world of FIFA, which had revenue of $5.7 billion between 2011 and 2014 and operates largely behind closed doors. Numerous allegations have been made by journalists and whistle-blowers, and executive committee members have been expelled for soliciting bribes, but no reforms have followed.
This time, FIFA should not be allowed to pretend that the problem is a few corrupt officials. A first step is the immediate ouster of Mr. Blatter and the restructuring of FIFA. The selection of Russia and Qatar should be subject to rigorous re-examination. Short of convincing proof to refute evidence of misconduct in the Qatar decision and swift action to improve the conditions for foreign workers, that award should be withdrawn.
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