The decision by FIFA, the body that governs international soccer, to award the 2026 World Cup to the combination of the United States, Canada and Mexico instead of Morocco — a nation widely considered unqualified to host the tournament — was a huge relief to many people who love the game. They had feared that the vote, which took place in Moscow, would once again prove an international embarrassment to the sport.
By placing the tournament in the U.S., FIFA will actually be entering the turf of its most damaging rival. Just over three years ago, the United States Department of Justice shocked the world by initiating a pre-dawn raid in Zurich, and arresting several international soccer officials. To date, nearly four dozen people have been indicted in the case for exchanging hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes. Many once untouchable administrators have been banned from the sport, including longtime FIFA president Sepp Blatter. And countless fans have had to confront the grim knowledge that rampant corruption has seeped into the game they loved. Their stomachs will not be settled this summer.
Following the purge of the corrupt leadership, soccer’s new bosses immediately declared a “new era.” They loudly condemned their predecessors. They made a show of promising to deliver a degree of transparency that seemed radical when compared to the sport’s four-decade financial black box. “You will be proud of FIFA,” the shiny-headed Swiss, Gianni Infantino, pledged soon after being elected the institution’s first new president in nearly 20 years.
But if there’s one takeaway from the sweeping corruption case, it’s that the problems afflicting a multi-billion-dollar enterprise that has operated without anything resembling oversight for decades turn out to run awfully deep. It’s one thing to bust a few crooked officials. It’s quite another to change an entire corrupt culture.
Take the fact that this World Cup is being held in Russia. Defenders of the country’s desire to host note that it has a long soccer history, highlighted by the great Soviet teams of the 1960s and ‘70s. But many questions hang over the 2010 decision to award the tournament to the nation instead of a very eager England — ones that may remain unanswered, as FIFA’s attempt to investigate the choice was stymied when Russia’s bid team claimed that all its computers were destroyed after the vote. FIFA, working on the dubious principle that if there are no records, there is no crime, cleared Russia of any wrongdoing.
As if to thumb his nose at critics, Vladimir Putin last fall made a public show of inviting Blatter to attend the tournament in person — even though FIFA gave Blatter a six-year ban in 2016 from attending any event. Blatter wasted little time in accepting the Russian leader’s offer, and it will be interesting to see where he will be seated at critical matches. Putin is expected to occupy a box with Infantino.
But Infantino’s record isn’t pristine, either. Since taking office in early 2016, Infantino has been the subject of two separate ethics complaints. One involved expense account abuses that included him putting a $10,000 mattress for his personal use on FIFA’s credit card; the other, perhaps more worryingly, included allegations that Infantino interfered with attempts to investigate potential corrupt acts. His name popped up in the Panama Papers. He’s repeatedly defended officials under indictment, at one point flying to Brazil for photo ops with the president of that country’s national association — a man so terrified of being arrested that he refuses to leave his own country. More recently, critics have accused Infantino of attempting to disqualify Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup on nitpicky technical grounds and thus aid the U.S.-Canada-Mexico bid. Infantino, for his part, has admitted he preferred the North American bid, but denied putting a finger on the scales.
The problems are hardly limited to FIFA headquarters in Zurich or, for that matter, Moscow.
Just last week, the Ghanaian government began the dissolution of the nation’s organizing body for the sport after a documentary aired on BBC showed its officials, including its president, repeatedly pocketing cash bribes as large as $65,000. In May, South America’s top soccer official, Paraguayan Alejandro Dominguez, shocked the U.S. and Mexico by offering a coveted guest spot in the 2019 Copa América tournament to Qatar’s woeful national team. The decision raised questions about the official’s increasingly cozy relationship with the petroleum-rich nation, which still labors under allegations that it somehow bought the vote awarding it the 2022 World Cup.
Soccer officials — long accustomed to being treated as if they were members of some sort of international aristocracy — like to cast the ongoing U.S. criminal investigation as a macabre conspiracy. They say the Americans have some grudge against the sport — or at FIFA not choosing it to host in 2022 instead of Qatar.
But there was no conspiracy. According to my conversations with people knowledgeable about the inner workings of the case, the prosecutors and special agents who have spent nearly eight years building America’s FIFA investigation never intended to bring down world soccer. They sought to simply cut out the cancerous rot afflicting the sport, believing that doings could actually give FIFA the opportunity to improve in the long term. To that end, the criminal purge wasn’t conceived of as the endpoint, but a small first step.
While FIFA has implemented a number of reforms, its changes so far have been derided as half measures in combatting a deep-seated culture of corruption. Its decision to award the 2026 World Cup to the U.S., Canada and Mexico may have averted another public relations disaster. But three years after the Zurich arrests, there’s still plenty to suggest it’s largely the same old FIFA. And while it may not offer the joy of a beautiful run by Lionel Messi, the ongoing scandal adds another dose of drama to the spectacle, and a measure of shame.
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