Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

It's a good job for football that America – a country so often maligned and mocked for its late adoption of the sport – has emerged so spectacularly on its side

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The Independent Football

God bless America. It wasn’t even supposed to be their game and that’s why nobody expected what we saw – the Feds metaphorically smashing through the Fifa door with their arrest warrants and their declaration that “if you touch our shores with your corrupt enterprise you will be held accountable”.

There was certainly a cheesiness about the clip-art footballs they used in the Justice Department press conference room to illustrate the dimensions of this war they are waging – and in their description of this criminality as “the World Cup of fraud and we are issuing Fifa the red card”.

But it was none less than Loretta Lynch, the Attorney General of the United States of America, standing up to say what we have waited 20 years to hear someone say: that the game is up for Fifa. “They took a soccer enterprise and turned it into a criminal enterprise,” she said.

To hear the details pour out of what Lynch says happened “over and over; year after year; tournament after tournament”– the $11m in unreported income trousered by Charles “Chuck” Blazer, a former Fifa executive committee member; the alleged £110m in bribes just to host the 2016 Copa America which constituted a third of all the tournament’s rights – was to wish that the Americans had also got their hands on the investigation into how Russia and Qatar got the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The European soil stuff belongs to the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland.

Inhale this fresh air of a liberating spirit while you can, though, because it will not be long before we are plunged back into the foul stench of Fifa once more. For a sense of how deep that particular slough is, you only had to hear the organisation’s director of communications, Walter de Gregorio, talk – a few hours after 14 of his colleagues were marched away from the five-star Baur au Lac hotel at daybreak, denied its twice daily housekeeping service, private garage, car wash and massage on demand, and placed under arrest.

“How can you say he should step down?” De Gregorio said to the suggestion that 24 years of bribery had happened on Sepp Blatter’s watch. “No. The president is not involved. Of course, he is the head of Fifa but he is not involved in any... So how can you, can you, can you say, he has to whatsoever step down? He is the president. He is the president. He is the president. And if the 209 members re-elect him, he is the president for the next four years…”

To hear this incantation from De Gregorio was to know how much it will take to rip out the heart of an institutionally toxic organisation such as this. “Two No’s for you: No. No,” he replied to the question of the Russia and Qatar World Cups being in doubt. He insinuated that the FBI had acted now for the purposes of good PR – “a good international coverage,” as De Gregorio put it. Fifa, he observed in the high point of denial, “was the damaged party”. The trouble with these periodic Fifa haemorrhages is that Blatter and the men who do his talking for him always find enough friends to ward them off. Remember Jack Warner’s threatened “tsunami” of allegations against Blatter at the same stage in the Fifa cycle four years ago? Perhaps not, because Blatter breezed to re-election to ask: “Crisis. What crisis?”

As Russia, one of Blatter’s winners, predictably became his latest cheerleader, condemning what it described as an “illegal extra-territorial implantation of American law”, you sensed that this fight calls for those who can hurt Fifa commercially to share the Justice Department’s moral indignation and drive to act. Organisations such as the BBC and ITV, for example, whose vast sums of money for broadcast rights for Russia and Qatar will line the pockets of an organisation whose officials – it seems – have been accepting bribes and kickbacks on European soil since the 1990s. The chances of either the BBC or ITV boycotting Fifa are precisely nil, though, because they consider the World Cup Final audience too much to give up. They know that if they sacrifice the chance to show it, there will always be someone else to take their place.

The same lack of unity also exists among advertisers, despite the superficial noise about Visa and adidas entering the public realm on the subject of Fifa. “We can only encourage Fifa to continue to establish and follow transparent compliance standards of everything they do,” adidas said in a statement, contributing the sum total of nothing. And it is the same story for individual football associations. The Conservative MP Damian Collins reiterated his belief (also articulated by Gary Lineker) that England should boycott Russia and Qatar. But the FA knows that it would be in a minority, in a gesture which would be financially disastrous because World Cup qualifying campaigns pay the Wembley overdraft. Supporters won’t be enamoured with a boycott either because the indignation doesn’t run that deep for many. It would require the entire European continent to withdraw to inflict on Blatter the mildest cut.

You only have to go back to February to see how his organisation gets a hold on anyone who might buck the system. The American TV networks Fox and NBC were playing merry hell at that time about the fact that the 2022 Qatar World Cup had been moved to the winter, clashing with the NFL season. It was a dispute that looked destined for the courts, with Fifa being sued by the two companies whose $1bn makes them the biggest contributors to the World Cup purse. And, what do you know? Fox and NBC’s Spanish language Telemundo operation were suddenly awarded broadcast TV rights to the 2026 World Cup, too, without any bidding taking place, and to the raw fury of other American broadcasters. Nothing illegitimate; just evidence of how, with the product which everyone wants, Fifa can head off any storm.

It was, says Richard Welbirg of the TV Sports Market publication, as categorical a piece of evidence as you will find that the threat of a court appearance has the potential to embarrass Fifa and make it act. A good job for football then, that America – a country so often maligned and mocked for its late adoption of the sport – has emerged so spectacularly on its side.

Timeline of controversy: Fifa failings

December 2010 Russia and Qatar awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively, days after a BBC exposé of Fifa, claiming Nicolas Leoz, Issa Hayatou and Ricardo Teixeira, who voted in the 2018 and 2022 Cup bids, had taken bribes in the 1990s.

February 2011 Fifa’s ethics committee upheld three-year and one-year bans imposed upon executive committee members Amos Adamu and Reynald Temarii for breaches of Fifa’s code of  ethics following newspaper investigations into wrongdoing during the bidding campaigns.

May 2011 Fifa suspends presidential candidate Mohamed Bin Hammam and vice-president Jack Warner pending an investigation into claims they had offered financial incentives to members of the Caribbean Football Union. The Qatar 2022 team deny any wrongdoing.

June 2011 Hammam found guilty of bribery and banned from all international and national football activity for life.  Warner escapes investigation after resigning.

July 2012 Fifa commissions report into allegations of corruption in world football.

June 2014 A newspaper reports it has received “millions” of documents revealing Hammam made payments to football officials in return for votes for Qatar.

September 2014 Fifa’s independent ethics investigator Michael Garcia completes his 430-page report into corruption allegations.

November 2014 Hans-Joachim Eckert, chairman of Fifa’s independent ethics committee, publishes a summary of Garcia’s investigation, finding breaches by Russia and Qatar were “of very limited scope”. Fifa lodges criminal complaint with Swiss attorney general over “possible misconduct” by individuals in connection with the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Garcia calls the summary “incomplete and erroneous” and launches an appeal against it.

December 2014 Garcia loses his appeal and resigns. The US lawyer issues a statement criticising Fifa’s “lack of leadership”, saying he cannot change the culture of the world governing body. Fifa executives agree to publish a “legally appropriate version”  of the report, but this has  yet to happen.