By Julie DiCaro–
(CBS) While the rest of the world is all atwitter about the arrest and indictment of top officials in FIFA, soccer’s governing body, the reaction across much of America has been confusion. Why are the Department of Justice, IRS and FBI wasting their time investigating soccer officials? Why was it the United States that brought charges? What does this mean for future World Cups?
Here are five questions Americans should understand about the FIFA probe, why it happened and what it means.
What is FIFA? If you don’t follow soccer, it might be hard to get a grip on how far-reaching and powerful of an organization FIFA is. First, FIFA is the governing body of soccer, meaning it makes and enforce the rules for everyone from the World Cup national teams down to the the kids you see playing in your neighborhood, as well as everyone in between. In that sense, think of the NCAA, only on a much, much larger scale.
FIFA is also a $6 billion organization, making it more of an international corporation than just a sporting league. In addition, FIFA awards hosting and media rights for dozens of tournaments with international implications. To get a good idea of what FIFA is, think of the NFL, plus JP Morgan Chase, plus the International Olympic Committee. That would give you a better idea of FIFA’s reach.
Indicting so many officials in and connected to FIFA is sort of like indicting Darth Vader and half of his admirals. The emperor, FIFA president Sepp Blatter, has escaped prosecution for now.
Why the United States playing a leading role? Given that the United States lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to soccer’s popularity, many fans home and abroad were surprised to see America taking the lead in investigation FIFA and charging much of its leadership with fraud, bribery and money laundering. But in some ways, it had to be the United States that went after the biggest sporting league in the world.
First off, many of the charges, which largely center around the election of FIFA’s executive committee and the awarding of the 2010 World Cup to South Africa, took place using U.S. banks and U.S. internet service providers. Those connections, as tenuous as they may be, allowed the Department of Justice to reach its long arm all the way to Switzerland, which cooperated in the probe with U.S. authorities. While the laws being used to charge and extradite FIFA officials to the United States were enacted to help snare terrorists and drug kingpins, they were convenient for the purposes of taking on FIFA’s officials.
Why now? Allegations of bribery and corruption within FIFA have been circulating for decades. In fact, when the U.S. lost the bid to host the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, former President Bill Clinton was reportedly so upset with all the under-handed dealing that he smashed a hotel room mirror.
But while frustrations over FIFA’s blatant backdoor dealings have been simmering for years, the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar made it imperative that a host of nations turn up the heat on FIFA. This is because Qatar is relying heavily on migrant workers to build the facilities (and in some case the actual cities) that will host the 2022 Cup. Most of these workers are from some of the poorest countries in the world: Nepal, North Korea and India.
The workers are reportedly being held in slave-like conditions (with their passports and earnings being confiscated by their employers) without adequate health care, nutrition and housing. Recently, workers were even forced to run a “celebratory” marathon without without shoes and with little water. To date, more than 1,200 migrant workers have died working on FIFA sites in Qatar.
Getting to FIFA officials now is literally a matter of life and death.
What does this mean for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups? While the U.S. indictment focuses only on the alleged buying of the 2010 World Cup by South Africa, the Swiss government is working hand-in-hand with America. On Wednesday, the same Swiss authorities who carried out the arrests of FIFA officials on behalf of the U.S. were seen carrying computers and files out of FIFA headquarters in Zurich, and the Swiss government said it is officially opening a probe into the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
For its part, FIFA has said it won’t reopen the bidding into the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, but if U.S. and Swiss authorities come up with evidence that those Cups were awarded in exchange for bribes, expect the entire world to put massive pressure on FIFA to award those games to another country.
At the top of the list? America, which many felt had by far the best bid for the 2022 games.
Why wasn’t Blatter indicted? As giddy as the world soccer community was to hear about the arrest of FIFA officials Wednesday, the excitement was tempered by the announcement that Blatter, the FIFA president who’s considered by most of the world to be the architect and chief supporter of FIFA’s corruption, wasn’t indicted.
However, U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch was clear in a press conference that the indictments handed down so far are just the beginning, not the end, of the criminal investigation into FIFA. There’s no doubt that Blatter is the top prize in this entire probe, and expect both the U.S. and Swiss authorities, with the support of Europe, to do everything they can to bring Blatter down.
FIFA is scheduled to hold a presidential election Friday, which Blatter is expected to win, in a landslide, for the fourth straight time. However, Europe’s governing soccer foundation, UEFA, called for the vote to be postponed in light of the allegations against FIFA and announced it was considering boycotting the election. UEFA now says it will attend the vote but will back Blatter’s rival, Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein.
Julie DiCaro is an update anchor for 670 The Score and an avid soccer fan. Follow Julie on Twitter @JulieDiCaro or on Facebook. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.