A Red Card for FIFA

2 minute read

Despite the best attempts of FIFA, the global governing body of soccer, to conduct its business without any real accountability, it has long been an open secret that the world’s most popular sport is also its most corrupt. On May 27, the U.S. government charged 14 people, including nine current or former FIFA officials, with money laundering, racketeering and wire fraud. The investigation became public in dramatic fashion as Swiss police escorted suspects from the five-star Zurich hotel where FIFA brass had gathered to coronate the organization’s president, Sepp Blatter, with another term.

Switzerland’s attorney general also announced that police had raided FIFA’s headquarters to seize evidence connected to possible corruption surrounding its controversial decision in December 2010 to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. “For years, people have been waiting for somebody big to take on FIFA,” says Laurent Dubois, a Duke University history professor who has written a book on World Cup politics. “I just never thought that day would actually happen.”

Will these charges actually transform FIFA? A FIFA spokesman claimed on May 27 that “we are very happy about what is happening right now.” The party line is that FIFA is happy to rid itself of bad elements. And Blatter himself was not charged.

As far as public opinion goes, though, Blatter’s escape is a mere technicality. Since he was elected president in 1998, Blatter has played big-league pork politics, using FIFA’s substantial war chest to dole out funds to officials of tiny soccer federations, who sometimes keep the money. In November, Nepal’s top soccer official temporarily stepped down after he was accused of stealing more than $5 million. These grants buy loyalty: in FIFA elections, the votes of Nepal and Montserrat count just as much as those of the U.S. and Brazil.

UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, has called for a postponement of the scheduled May 29 election. But no matter who wins, Blatter or rival Prince Ali Bin Hussein of Jordan, FIFA will face additional pressure to reform–and potentially more scandals. “Let me be clear,” said Kelly Currie, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, in a statement. “This is not the final chapter of our investigation.” The world’s favorite sport just got a big black eye.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com