Four Thoughts on FIFA


Many of my friends and former students have messaged me about my thoughts on the FIFA scandal.  Here are my four thoughts on the mess.

1.)  Oops

My guess is that Blatter will be reelected (I’m writing this as they’re voting, so I may be proved wrong before I get to the end of Point #4) because he’s done a fantastic job of spreading the graft around.  Also, in a conspiracy the last thing you want to do is toss a guy overboard. The FBI’s likely objective is to get Sepp in federal bracelets, but if they put the squeeze on him and he has nothing to protect, he could bring down the whole house.  We’ve already seen that Jack Warner, formerly the head of CONCACAF and the graft man par excellence- is now going full Scarface from “Half Baked” and throwing everyone within reach a big “fuck you.”

But more immediately, has a campaign gambit ever blown up more immediately in someone’s face than Blatter’s “my manifesto is the work I have done in FIFA.”  He changed tunes from “FIFA is what I built” to “I know many people hold me ultimately responsible [but] I cannot monitor everyone all the time. If people want to do wrong, they will also try to hide it.”

It will be amusing in the coming days to see if Sepp’s English is good enough to make extensive use of the passive voice so as to avoid implicating himself. “Mistakes were made at FIFA…”

  1. Maybe African Soccer Can Finally Start Living Up To Its Potential

Eleven months ago, the world was treated to the absurd sight of a convoy of armored trucks rolling down a Sao Paulo highway to deliver $3 million to the Ghanaian national soccer team. The Black Stars had threatened to strike if they were not paid. Most of the media attention was directed at the amusing sight of players kissing stacks of cash, but very little attention was directed to *why* this was happening.

Sadly, as any observer of African soccer knows, this was not an unusual event. In 1998 and 2002, Cameroon’s soccer team threatened to boycott the World Cup because they had not been paid, and teams from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Senegal have also threatened not to play in either the World Cup or African Cup of Nations because they had not been given promised payments or bonuses. And, in 2006 Trinidad & Tobago players had to sue the now-indicted Jack Warner in order to receive their payments.

When FBI Director Peter Comey spoke about FIFA in yesterday’s press conference, one thing he noted was that the widespread bribery was not a victimless crime, and that money that could have been directed at player development or a national soccer infrastructure has largely been redirected to the pockets of corrupt sportocrats. Yesterday’s indictment notes that roughly a third of major tournaments costs are graft, bribes, and corruption. Worse yet, when the pre-skimmed profits of these tournaments trickle down to the national associations, very little of it actually gets to either players or infrastructure. This double-dip graft structure has gutted African soccer.

In Cameroon, for example, despite making every World Cup since 1990, and despite having a lucrative Puma contract, the players are almost never paid in full, the national training infrastructure consists largely of three privately-run soccer academies, and the FA has invested nothing in coaching development. Despite enriching himself through the outright theft of massive amounts of FIFA money, the head of Cameroon’s FA, Issa Hayatou, was also the single most active seeker of bribes during the combined 2018-2022 bidding process.

With huge amounts of money coming into the Cameroon FA, and none of it being spent on improving the team, it’s no surprise that, despite producing world-class players, Cameroon’s national team has fallen apart. This problem is not unique to Cameroon, and in fact most African FAs are so corrupt that having competitively successful national teams is a virtual impossibility. Of course, to the people who run these corrupt organizations, neither winning nor the development of a robust soccer culture are the point. Wondering why Cameroon fails at soccer is a bit like asking why Vito Corleone isn’t turning a profit from Genco Olive Oil. In far too many countries, it’s fairer to say that the FA is a graft enterprise that occasionally participates in soccer tournaments, and not a soccer organization that has become corrupt.

3.)       This Will Be Portrayed as a Battle Between the First and Third World

As I noted five years ago, and as FiveThirtyEight pointed out today, many of the core structural problems stem from FIFA’s one-nation, one vote structure.

As the legal issues and the fight over control of FIFA (which won’t end with the election) progresses, my guess is that the most important reforms to be considered will be something like what I suggested back in 2010: the creation of a “Soccer Security Council” that consists of the 15 or so most important (historically and financially) soccer nations who will serve as a check on the power of the micro-associations. This will in many respects turn the clock back on FIFA to a time when it was largely run by Europe, Argentina, and Brazil.[1]

Returning soccer to the control of Western Europe plus the world’s other great economic powers has already raised the ire of nations likely to be either left out or hurt, as today Vladimir Putin accused the United States of making a power play to persecute individuals and nations that challenge American interests.  And, in fact, Sepp Blatter is already attempting to deploy the us-against-them rhetoric in order to mobilize his base in Africa and Latin America.

Those people who claim that this is the developed world flexing its muscles against the developing world are, frankly, right. If you create a system wherein the entities who make the money, create and run the infrastructure, and bear the most risks have less power than those who do not, then you’re practically begging for the proliferation of corruption. Moreover, this touches on a broader issue that we’ve not yet worked out.  One the complicated aspects of globalization is that as non-Western nations want to join the community of nations created by Western institutions and technology, they sometimes do not want to subject themselves to Western ethical and legal standards. In this context, I have very little sympathy for African FAs who want to profit from FIFA, but see attempts to enforce proper governance as somehow racist.  Is the new rule of political or social intercourse with the developing world that criticism = racism? This can’t be the case. Racism (and its cousin, colonialism) are pernicious and present forces in Africa, but FIFA is not a good example to point to.

In the recent past (as when European clubs fought unsuccessfully against moving the Qatar World Cup to the winter) we have seen that FIFA’s structure did not allow the power of the rich to overcome the power of the tiny. What may change now, though, is that the scale of the FIFA indictments are for the first time raising the notion of national associations leaving FIFA or boycotting the World Cup. England has already suggested that it may boycott 2018 if Blatter isn’t toppled and reforms instituted. When I brought this up a possibility in 2010, I was just a dude writing in an independent newspaper, but when David Cameron and Richard Branson brought this up as a possibility, it has more heft. Most national associations cannot survive without the money, organization, and infrastructure provided by the largest associations, so they may be forced to accept a new reality that allows them to live (but hopefully graft-free) under the governance of Western Europe and the rich nations.

  1. Why America? Why Now?

I don’t have much interest in the “why now?” question. The New York Times reports that the FBI’s initial interest “grew out of an unrelated inquiry into aspects of Russian organized crime” (maybe why uncle Vlad is so grumpy?). That said, my thought on this is a little like Marty Blank in Grosse Point Blank: “If I show up at your door, chances are you did something to bring me there.” FIFA was cutting up and got jammed up.

The “why America?” is a bit more complicated. The answer, frankly, is that only we could have ever done it. I won’t go over it too exhaustively here because I cover it in the linked newspaper article I wrote in 2010, but FIFA has always maintained that it was “a non-jurisdictional entity,” which is just fancy talk for the idea that FIFA could not be subject to legal proceedings against it, nor could its functionaries if they were carrying out proper FIFA business. For example, when the Ivory Coast brought the head of its FA up on (justified) corruption charges, FIFA said that this action violated the FIFA Charter’s ban on governmental interference. FIFA threatened to ban Ivory Coast from international competition for five years if they proceeded with the prosecution, and Ivory Coast backed down.

Technically speaking, FIFA *could* attempt to do the same to the United States and Switzerland. As a practical matter, it would never attempt to do so. The reason is that in a case from the 1990s involving sprinter Butch Reynolds, a federal court told the International Olympic Committee that any attempt to interfere with a judicial proceeding using strong-arm tactics would result in a contempt charge and the incarceration of IOC officials. FIFA is in an even more precarious position because the people indicted are facing RICO charges and, if the federal prosecutor were so inclined, he could view any attempt to interfere with judicial proceedings in the United States as an extension of the criminal conspiracy, thus people and entities (including FIFA itself) involved in the enforcement of a FIFA ban against the United States based on FIFA’s “government interference” rules could be named as criminal enterprises / conspirators as well. This would essentially destroy FIFA as a business entity. In short: don’t fuck with the feds.

More broadly, there are two other factors that make the United States uniquely equipped to take on FIFA. First, no country enforces its jurisdiction as broadly as does the United States. Much of the press conference yesterday was focused on making a case for how and why the indicted FIFA officials met the jurisdictional requirements of the charges. As a practical matter, no other country has the jurisdictional scope and the enormous banking system that the United States has, and thus it’s far easier to fall into the net of American law enforcement. Second, as happened with the Ivory Coast, FIFA’s main weapon against investigators is fear or reprisal. The FBI and Justice Department, though, spend their days dealing Al Qaeda, ISIS, Colombian drug lords, and Russian gangsters and they don’t have a lot of shits left over to give to soccer tournaments. This is a non-threat in their eyes.

Like most legal observers, I would bet that this is just the beginning. RICO charges are no joke, and because every individual within a criminal syndicate is responsible for the actions of every other member, there is *serious* time attached to many of these charges. People will start turning soon. I am not a huge fan of RICO (I’m one of those dinosaurs who thinks it’s unconstitutional), but in this case it will likely be key to breaking up FIFA and cleaning up international soccer.

You’re welcome, world. We even for all the shit that happened during the Bush Administration?

[1] This new council would likely also include the United States, Japan, Korea, and perhaps China and Mexico, along with the two South American superpowers plus Europe’s Big Five: England, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy.

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