AMERICANS HAVE FINALLY proved we care about soccer, in the most American way: by calling our lawyers. U.S. and Swiss authorities arrested several top FIFA officials last week, rudely pulling them out of their five-star Swiss hotel before they could put $27,000 worth of room service on their expense accounts, and charged them with an array of crimes, including fraud, bribery and money laundering.
The Department of Justice claims it can document more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks. To put that figure in perspective: It could have been used to purchase at least 300 college basketball recruits. Looking back, the bribes that brought the 2002 Olympics to Salt Lake City were an outright bargain, though FIFA officials would point out that at no point did they have to watch biathlon.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter decried the timing of the arrests, which came two days before he was up for reelection to his fifth term. Other FIFA officials were concerned they would not be able to find brand-new corrupt leaders on such short notice. This may explain why they reelected Blatter, though for the record Blatter denies any wrongdoing, any knowledge of wrongdoing, any wrong knowledge and any doings in general. He has also not been charged. It's fair to imagine, though, that after 17 years in charge of FIFA, Blatter knows where the ATMs are.
We like to say that cheaters never prosper, but the real question is why the prosperous feel the need to cheat. FIFA runs the planet's most successful sporting event. Even Bernie Madoff could make an honest fortune doing that. And yet, the big news here was not that FIFA might be corrupt. Every American kid running around an elementary school playground in a Lionel Messi jersey knew that. The news was that FIFA finally (allegedly) got caught.
If these indictments lead to convictions, then FIFA's mistake was fairly simple: The organization stopped faking honesty. FIFA awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia, which was a bit suspicious, since Russia is home to a large number of corrupt politicians. But hey, Russia is a big country, and even a respectable international sports organization might award it an event, like when the International Olympic Committee ... well ... anyway. The Russian World Cup could be rationalized.
The tipping point, one surmises, was when FIFA chose Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, even though Qatar was missing the proper infrastructure, basic respect for human rights and the letter U. Temperatures for summer games in Qatar could rise to 120° F. So officials decided to move the World Cup to November and December, when temperatures will top out at only 119°.
When FIFA chose Qatar, it was like awarding the U.S. Open to a pitch-and-putt course inside a Las Vegas casino, then expecting the media to pretend it was Pebble Beach. Of course, FIFA still has defenders, like Russian president Vladimir Putin. You would think Putin would simply bask in the glory of spending $50 billion his people didn't have to host a Winter Olympics. But Putin works tirelessly on behalf of people who help him, and he needs that 2018 World Cup to stay in Russia. So Putin is standing up for Blatter. If Putin is your character witness, it may be time to ask if you can choose the drapes for your cell.
Putin blames America for this scandal. He says FIFA's actions are out of our jurisdiction. Putin believes the United States should have power only over the United States, and Russia should have power over only Russia. And Ukraine. And possibly a couple of other countries. He'll let you know.
In the last 20 years many Americans discovered that soccer can be thrilling if you stay awake for it. They also discovered that the organization that governs the beautiful game does some very ugly business.
After the probe of FIFA corruption, Vladimir Putin is standing up for the soccer federation's president. If Putin is your character witness, it may be time to choose the drapes for your cell.
Should the Qatar World Cup be moved?
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CARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED