Few who have paid attention over the years were surprised to learn about the scandal at FIFA, the body that controls international soccer, most importantly, the quadrennial World Cup. For decades, FIFA's abuse of power has earned the organization the antipathy of European leagues. Perhaps the final straw fell when FIFA awarded the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a country with no soccer tradition, summer temperatures reaching 120 degrees and abundant cash to give away. No problem, said FIFA, we will just move the Qatar World Cup to the winter -- right in the middle of the regular soccer season for the major soccer leagues. Those soccer leagues will just have to suspend play for a month or so.
Much of the animosity towards FIFA has been directed at Sepp Blatter. A pompous, arrogant apparatchik, Blatter swatted away criticism as an unwarranted attack on the "beautiful game" of soccer. However, nine of his colleagues who run FIFA were arrested by Swiss authorities this week based on a U.S. indictment for racketeering, bribery and money laundering. Swiss authorities announced that they will investigated the awarding of the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar. Despite this unprecedented governmental action, Blatter was reelected by the FIFA member nations to lead the organization for another four-year term.
Blatter has explained that he knew nothing about any alleged wrongdoing. If that is true, than his supervision of FIFA was at least negligent and likely reckless. If he did know or if he participated in the shakedowns, he will be charged and extradited to the U.S. to stand trial.
The FIFA scandal was the inevitable result of the organization's unaccountable and absolute power. It holds the world monopoly on the sport and few would choose to confront FIFA over its misdeeds. Those economic entities that wanted media contracts to televise FIFA-controlled events paid for the privilege and then paid more off the books to the FIFA men who made it happen. Those countries that wanted to host a World Cup likely ponied up the bribe money and then followed every whim of FIFA in conducting their tournaments. Apparently, the events remained sufficiently profitable even after the money extorted was added to the contract price.
FIFA is not the only offender, of course. Those who operated the International Olympic Committee sought similar "gifts" before awarding the Summer or Winter Games to a country. If you wanted the political (and perhaps economic) benefits of serving as a host, you needed to pay to play. The IOC has undergone administrative reforms, but it is too early to know for sure that awards will only be made on the merits.
Blatter has pledged to clean up "his" FIFA. The problem, of course, is who will hold him to his promise. Individual countries and leagues that want anything from FIFA must behave as the king demands. Blatter has also pledged to make FIFA "transparent," and that could, if it occurs, actually have an impact on the long tradition of abuse. Other than the criminal process, the primary institution that can (and will) confront FIFA is the press. Even absolute rulers will eventually succumb to public scrutiny.
Many have likened FIFA to the mafia. As far as we know, however, FIFA only used its economic power to get its way and line its pockets rather than employing physical threats towards opponents. Perhaps FIFA is a more modern version of the mafia, bound by loyalty to its godfather, Sepp Blatter, and aided by its unchallenged control over the world's most favorite sport. The criminal laws of the United States may trim back the extortion, but the world sporting community will only be free of FIFA's absolutism when it creates a rival organization. While the smallest nations in the world can continue to vote to maintain the status quo, the major leagues of soccer (where the world's greatest stars play) can create an alternative universe. FIFA is not a natural monopoly. There can be another quadrennial tournament for soccer run by those countries and leagues that do not want their sport to be the private preserve of an international organization run by thugs. Fight abuse with economic ingenuity and competition as sports fans watch the FIFA officials do the perp walk into the American criminal courts.