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Few arrests can have provoked such Schadenfreude as those of seven senior officials of FIFA, football’s world governing body, early on May 27th at a swish Swiss hotel. The arrests are part of a wide-ranging investigation by America’s FBI into corruption at FIFA, dating back over two decades. The indictment from the Department of Justice named 14 people on charges including racketeering, wire fraud and paying bribes worth more than $150m. They are likely to face charges in a US federal court. As more people start talking in a bid to sauve qui peut, the investigation will with luck reach into every dark and dank corner of FIFA’s Zurich headquarters.
American extraterritorial jurisdiction is often excessive in its zeal and overbearing in its methods, but in this instance it deserves the gratitude of football fans everywhere. The hope must be that FIFA’s impunity is at last brought to an end and with it the career of the ineffably complacent Sepp Blatter, its 79-year-old president, who was nonetheless expected to be re-elected for a fifth term after The Economist had gone to print.
The evidence of systemic corruption at FIFA has been accumulating for years, but came to a head in 2010 with the bidding for two World Cups. When the right to hold the competition in 2022 was won by tiny, bakingly hot Qatar, against the strong advice of FIFA’s own technical committee, suspicions that votes had been bought were immediately aroused. Thanks to two female whistleblowers and the diligent investigative work of the Sunday Times, a wealth of damning evidence was unearthed involving a Qatari FIFA official, Mohamed bin Hammam, who allegedly wooed football bigwigs in Africa with a $5m slush fund.
Under pressure, Mr Blatter eventually agreed to set up a FIFA “ethics court”. He also appointed Michael Garcia, the American lawyer who helped oust Eliot Spitzer from the position of New York governor, to investigate the allegations of vote-rigging and kickbacks. Incredibly, Mr Garcia, who spent more than a year looking into the allegations, never interviewed Mr bin Hammam or examined the trove of e-mails acquired by the Sunday Times. Only a summary version of his report, itself condemned by the investigator as “erroneous representations of the facts and conclusions”, was ever published. Mr Garcia resigned and Mr Blatter sailed serenely on, reneging on a commitment not to stand for election again. The idea that a clearly tainted World Cup bidding process should be reopened was firmly squashed.
The underlying problem at FIFA is that it controls television and marketing rights (worth $4 billion at last year’s World Cup in Brazil), which can be used by those in power to win the loyalty of football federations from poor countries, particularly in Africa. Corruption is tolerated, as long as the money is spread around. Critics of FIFA are dismissed as bad losers and racists.
The language it understands
Even now, there is no certainty that FIFA will embrace reform. The initial test of its willingness to clean house should be the replacement of Mr Blatter with someone who can be trusted with that mission, which must begin with reopening the bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups under conditions of complete transparency. If nothing changes, others must act. UEFA, European football’s umbrella organisation, should leave FIFA and take its teams out of the World Cup. Europe’s broadcasters should decline to bid for rights. And FIFA’s biggest sponsors—the likes of Adidas, Coca-Cola, Visa and Hyundai—should realise that association with it risks damaging their brands. They must hit the organisation where it hurts most: in its bulging wallet. Until now the stench from FIFA has prompted people to do nothing more than hold their noses. That is no longer an option.
From the print edition: Leaders – The Economist