The indictment of several leaders of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, the worldwide soccer governing body, is certainly unprecedented. It’s hard to imagine duplicating this elsewhere in sports beyond the Olympic movement.
USA Today reports:
The Justice Department’s corruption inquiry into organized soccer has deep roots in the USA. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Wednesday that suspects in the $150 million bribery scheme met in this country often to plan their illicit activities and used U.S. banking institutions and domestic wire transfers to distribute giant bribe payments.
Describing the alleged wrongdoing as “rampant, systemic,” Lynch said the actions spanned two generations of soccer officials abroad and in the USA who “abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.”
“They planned to profit from their scheme, in large part, through promotional efforts directed at the growing U.S. market for soccer,” Lynch said.
The attorney general, a month into her term as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, specifically highlighted the operation of the U.S.-based Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, or CONCACAF, a powerful subsidiary of soccer’s international governing body FIFA, whose member countries include the USA. The group’s top leaders, according to court documents, played major roles in soliciting and accepting bribes related to the selection of host nations for the 1998 and 2010 World Cup tournaments.
What might as well be called Soccergate, or Soccerghazi, proves that the difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense. Sam Vecenie chronicles several of the indicted, with one major exception …
1. Chuck Blazer
Title: Formerly — General Secretary of CONCACAF, member of FIFA executive committee. Currently — FBI informant, lover of cats.
Story: Blazer might be one of the most strangely interesting human beings on Earth. First and foremost, the big, bearded gentle giant has been at the center of the explosion in the popularity of soccer in the United States. He was instrumental in bringing the World Cup to America in 1994 and has been very important in the television deals that have brought the sport into a wider focus across the country.
But then there’s the seedier side to his deeds, such as the fact that he has plead guilty to racketeering conspiracy, money-laundering conspiracy and income-tax evasion, among other things. These charges led to his employ as an FBI informant. Also, did I mention that he had a $6,000-a-month apartment just for his many cats? Well, that’s also a thing (according to the New York Daily News).
It’s an unexpected end for Blazer, who operated with high-flying impunity for decades, inhabiting a world of private jets, famous friends, secret island getaways, offshore bank accounts and two Trump Tower apartments with sweeping views of Central Park and the crenellations of The Plaza hotel.
CONCACAF’s offices took up the entire 17th floor, but Blazer often worked from two apartments where he lived on the 49th floor in $18,000-per-month digs for himself and an adjoining $6,000 retreat largely for his unruly cats, according to a source.
According to that article, Blazer also had a “fleet” of mobility scooters, had a Hummer to use in Manhattan (WHY?!), and didn’t pay his taxes for about a decade. Basically, he might be the most strange yet essential sporting official in all of the world.
2. Nicolas Leoz
Title: Formerly — President of the Paraguayan football association, President of [the Confederación Sudamericana de Fútbol], member of FIFA executive committee
Story: Leoz is one of the double-digit executive committee members to have been implicated in corruption since voting on the location of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. He resigned his position on the ExCo days before a ruling was to come down on World Cup kickbacks, citing health reasons at 84-years-old. Between this and the ISL investigation where he was thought to have taken over $700,000 in bribes, it’s pretty clear that he was never exactly on the up-and-up as far as his time.
However, those bribes pale in comparison to the hilarious requests he had of the English football association back in 2010. Despite being Paraguayan, he apparently asked to be knighted by the queen in exchange for his World Cup vote. Also, one of his aides asked for the FA Cup, an event that has been played since 1871, to be named after him.
“Regarding the offer to name a cup after him, Alberto’s comments were ‘Dr Léoz is an old man and to go to London just to meet the Prince and go to the FA Cup final is not reason enough. If this is combined, say, with the naming of the CUP [sic] after Dr Léoz then that could be reason enough’ his words literally.”
Oh how I wish Aaron Ramsey would have scored the game winner in the Leoz Cup last year.
3. Jack Warner
Title: Formerly — Vice President of FIFA, President of CONCACAF, member of FIFA executive committee
Story: Warner is pretty much your prototype for corruption in a FIFA executive. His past misdeeds could fill an entire book. A brief outline of them would include allegations of understating World Cup earnings to withhold bonuses to his players, selling black market tickets to the 2002 World Cup to make a profit, and possibly accepting payment for a vote for Qatar in the 2022 World Cup vote.
Basically, he is the closest thing you’ll find to a Bond villain in the world of international football. Don’t believe me? He’s daring the American government to arrest him (which the Trinidad and Tobago government apparently just did).
He’s certainly not the type to go quietly into that good night, and he’s the kind of guy who will take others down with the ship if he knows he’s going down. Heck, just four years he threatened and kind of came through on a “football tsunami” following a provisional suspension due to his connections with Mohammed Bin Hammam, a former ExCo member that has been banned from football. He’ll be fun to watch.
4. Jose Maria Marin
Title: Formerly — President of [the Confederação Brasileira de Futebol], President of 2014 FIFA World Cup Committee
Story: Marin followed up Ricardo Teixeira as president of the CBF after Teixeira resigned for “health reasons” months before it was revealed he and his father-in-law former president of FIFA Joao Havelange accepted millions in bribes. Marin’s time as president wasn’t the most eventful two years, as he was replaced by Marco Polo del Nero last month in an election.
The implication in this indictment is arguably not even the worst thing he’s done in the last three years though. That likely came when he pocketed a little kid’s medal after the Sao Paolo Youth Football Cup in 2012.
Come on, man.
… because he hasn’t been indicted yet: FIFA dictator Sepp Blatter, who will probably get reelected president of FIFA today.
The indictments are over bribes allegedly paid to secure Russia and Qatar as the World Cup host countries in 2018 and 2022, respectively. If bribes were made, you’d think FIFA would rebid those World Cups, particularly given the fact that a few countries, including this one, probably could assemble the entire World Cup schedule in existing stadiums in a year of two. FIFA is not rebidding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Charles C.W. Cooke approves of the arrests, I guess:
Well, well, well. Seemingly out of nowhere, the U.S. government has entered the fray and done what nobody else would. After a lengthy investigation, the New York Times records today, the Justice Department, the F.B.I., and the I.R.S. have “pledged to rid the international soccer organization,” FIFA, of the “systemic corruption” that has been its hallmark for decades. Describing “soccer’s governing body in terms normally reserved for Mafia families and drug cartels,” the Times adds, the DOJ is focusing on a host of crimes, including but not limited to “racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy.” These arrests, the paper confirms, came as “a startling blow.”
How peculiar it is that FIFA should finally be cleaned up by a nation that doesn’t care about soccer.
Rooting out the vast array of criminals that have been operating within FIFA’s grubby little syndicate is necessary and virtuous work — and it is a relief that somebody has finally decided to do it. But, amid all the excitement of the charges, it is worth remembering that even when Sepp Blatter and Co. are ostensibly on the level, they are never too far away from disaster. Once upon a time, FIFA cared primarily about putting on first-class sporting events: If a country had the infrastructure and the will, it could expect a fair shake at hosting a tournament. Now the outfit’s processes have become mired in political correctness, in the quixotic search for “legacy” projects, and in the dirty and hopeless mess that is modern internationalist politics. Because FIFA’s rules are so strict — and because it is more concerned with kickbacks and with infrastructure spending than with soccer — for a given nation to “win” the right to play host is, in truth, for that nation to lose. “Clueless” doesn’t even begin to describe the buggers.
Consider South Africa, which accommodated the 2010 World Cup. Per Canada’s Globe and Mail, the majority of the venues that were constructed for the 2010 World Cup are deteriorating rapidly, at great cost to the country’s government. As of today, “the $600-million Cape Town Stadium” — the flagship of the collection — has been “largely abandoned” and is “losing an estimated $6-million to $10-million (U.S.) annually.” So dire is its future supposed to be, the paper concludes, that “some residents have even suggested that it should be demolished to save money.” This, apparently, is typical. “Almost all of the stadiums are losing money annually,” the Globe and Mail adds. And why? Well, in part because FIFA “refused to allow some South African cities — including Cape Town and Durban — to use their existing stadiums” during the competition. And so, “eager to win the rights to the prestigious tournament, the host countries [agreed] to FIFA’s terms” and were thereby “burdened with massive costs and perennial operating expenses for the stadiums.”
A similar story has obtained in Brazil, which played host to the World Cup last year. Because the deadlines were so narrow, the Washington Post has observed, much of the infrastructure for 2014 was never finished. Now, it sits incomplete and useless — an ugly testament to a makework project that should never have been started. Meanwhile, much of what was finished has been unceremoniously abandoned. “Several of the stadiums built for Brazil’s World Cup have been underused,” Reuters records, “and at least one has been closed because of structural problems.” …
Lamentable as these legacies are, even they represent nothing at all when compared with the slow-motion disaster that is at present unfolding in Qatar. Whatever one believes went down in the bidding process — per the New York Times, “a whistle-blower who worked for the Qatar bid team claimed that several African officials were paid $1.5 million each to support” Qatar’s bid for 2022; per a group of senior British parliamentarians, a $2 million bribe was paid to a FIFA vice-president and his family — that the decision has been allowed to stand is a nothing less than a moral disgrace.
As we are now learning, Qatar’s bid was built atop a pyramid of carefully contrived lies. Acknowledging that the desert heat could prove to be a problem, representatives from the country promised repeatedly that they would design their stadiums to be fully air-conditioned. This, it turns out, is physically impossible. (The failure has forced FIFA to move the event to the winter — slap bang in the middle of international soccer’s busiest season.) Hoping to attract the more socially conscious among the body’s voters, Qatar vowed that it would build twelve full-scale stadiums for the tournament itself and then ship the parts to poorer countries in the aftermath. This, we have subsequently learned, is almost certainly not going to happen. (Qatar now intends to build eight stadiums and has gone worryingly quiet on their reuse.) Most worrying of all, those who were concerned that to award the competition to a Middle Eastern country would inevitably be to sanction a human-rights disaster have been well and truly vindicated.
In December, the Guardian reported that the “Nepalese migrants” who have flooded into the country to build the necessary infrastructure “have died at a rate of one every two days in 2014.” When one adds in the “Indian, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi” workers who have complemented them, the Guardian adds, that number reaches almost one per day. In the West, even a small portion of these deaths would have been sufficient to shut down the project. In Qatar, nobody seems much to care. According to the International Trade Union Confederation and the Nepalese and Indian governments, a startling 1,200 workers have died since construction began — most of them from heart attacks triggered by the extreme heat. If current trends continue, the ITUC anticipates this number will rise to 4,000. We haven’t seen that much death ordered in the name of a sporting event since the more enterprising among the Roman leisured class felt a touch bored one day and decided that it might be fun to see how human beings would fare against their lions.
Put in context, these numbers are even more extraordinary than they appear. Not a single person died during the construction phase of the 2012 London Olympic Games, while just six were killed preparing China for its 2008 turn as host. In total, eight workers were killed prior to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil; the 2010 tournament in South Africa took two. Even if nobody else dies in Qatar between now and 2022, the death toll will be 150 times what it was during the last competition. To find a construction disaster that is remotely comparable, one has to go back more than a century — and even then this level of attrition is abnormal. The Chrysler Building, the Statue of Liberty, and Mount Rushmore were all completed without fatalities. Just five people died building the Empire State Building; eleven were killed putting up the Golden Gate Bridge; and between 20 and 59 perished erecting the Brooklyn Bridge. The only recent civilian engineering project that killed people at the rate we are seeing at present in Qatar? The Panama Canal.
It’s unlikely anyone died during the construction of the stadiums for the 1994 World Cup, hosted in the U.S., either. That’s because all nine stadiums — Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.; Foxboro Stadium between Boston and Providence; RFK Stadium in Washington; the Citrus Bowl in Orlando; the Pontiac Silverdome outside Detroit; Soldier Field in Chicago; the Cotton Bowl in Dallas; Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, Calif.; and the final site, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. — were existing stadiums that needed little revision (usually replacing artificial turf with grass) for World Cup soccer. Every stadium on that list either still exists today or has been replaced by an equally World Cup-capable stadium. And there are numerous stadiums elsewhere in the U.S. that could also host matches with little needed work.
That apparently flies in the face of how FIFA likes to do things. Not that this matters to most Americans, because every predicted wave of soccer interest has failed to materialize. As I’ve written here before, it seems that just because kids like to play soccer doesn’t mean they watch soccer as adults. And as, I guess, a soccer dad now, my observation is that the better quality soccer is, the less interesting it is to watch.