America’s criminal justice system can be criticised for its high-handedness, its fondness for publicity and its broad claims of extra-territorial authority. But with the indictment of 14 individuals, including seven current Fifa officials, on corruption and fraud charges, the US Justice Department has rendered a signal service to football fans everywhere – by setting in motion the desperately overdue cleansing of the gigantic Augean stable that is the governing body of the world’s most popular sport.
The charges were the result of a long investigation. They relate to activities dating back to the 1990s, involving bribes allegedly reaching $150m, and mainly implicate the north American, Caribbean, and South American divisions of Fifa. They were quickly followed by the announcement that Switzerland, where Fifa is based, is launching a criminal investigation into the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, to Russia and Qatar respectively.
That development, too, has a strong US connection. Almost certainly it was spurred by the report commissioned by Fifa into those controversial awards, from the outset clouded by claims of bribes and illegal payments. The report was prepared by Michael Garcia, a former federal attorney for New York whom Fifa had appointed to head the investigative arm of its own ethics committee. Mr Garcia submitted his report last year, but Fifa refused to publish it, claimed it contained evidence of corruption, and provided merely a bowdlerised synopsis that Mr Garcia said distorted his findings. Shortly thereafter, he resigned.
By coincidence or otherwise, the Justice Department chose to make its indictments public just 72 hours before the election of Fifa’s president, in which the incumbent – the 79-year-old Sepp Blatter, in office since 1998 – is running for a fifth term. At least until yesterday’s bombshells, it was assumed that he would win comfortably, thanks to support from Africa, Asia and North America. Backing for his lone challenger, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, is largely confined to Europe, home of the richest, most powerful and most successful football nations, but which, under Fifa’s one-country-one-vote system, is heavily outnumbered by Mr Blatter’s supporters.
Mr Blatter himself has not been charged and even those officials facing extradition deserve the presumption of innocence. Even so, it seems inconceivable that the election can go ahead as planned. But to believe the Fifa spokesman yesterday, it will. Nor, it seems, will there be any re-vote on the two World Cups. In any other business, the autocratic Mr Blatter would long since have gone, following this latest evidence that the organisation he heads is utterly incapable of policing itself.
But he has, apparently, no plans to step down. What has happened might be sad, but “it is good for Fifa”, the spokesman declared, as if Mr Blatter had led the anti-corruption campaign himself. This Alice-in-Wonderland approach must end, as must the Blatter presidency. Fifa’s crisis simply cannot continue. With any luck, yesterday’s events should do the trick.
Whatever happens, sweeping reform is vital. A fundamental problem is Fifa’s electoral system – outwardly democratic, but in reality an invitation to corruption – that gives equal weight to each of Fifa’s 209 country members. The vote of the Cayman Islands is worth the same as that of Germany, the current world champions. This has to change. If not, then the major football powers should withdraw from Fifa, a step that would destroy the credibility of its showpiece, the World Cup. A drastic step indeed, but one commensurate with Fifa’s current disgrace.Reuse content