Menu Close

Beyond the Beltway

What the FIFA scandal really tells us – about the US

American justice at work. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

I have lived in the US for over three decades. And I have never seen soccer – that is, real “football” – dominate the front pages of US newspapers for so many days and with so many stories. In that sense, at least, FIFA rules.

Of course, trust the Americans to inject themselves in such an unorthodox way into the nearest thing that the rest of the world has to a universal religion.

While billions watched the annual cup finals in England, France and Spain over the weekend, the bigger stories in the US focused on fraud, corruption and the reelection of FIFA’s notorious 79-year-old president, Sepp Blatter.

The 2015 Football Association Cup Final.

So, in case you wondered, Arsenal in England and Barcelona in Spain (if not the more dour PSG in France) amply demonstrated why football fans love the game so much that they will put up with the kind of corruption that threatens its purity in the reputed squalor that is FIFA.

But be clear: this is not just a story about cronyism in soccer. It isn’t even about cronyism in sport.

This is a story that intersects with four major themes that transcend the world of sports – and the world of crime.

This is a story about the issues that the US has to grapple with in many places and in many ways.

The US as the world’s sheriff

The first concerns the US’s more general role in global affairs.

Students of international relations, or of the interminable debates in the run-up to presidential elections, will be familiar with a central question: should the US be the world’s sheriff (or policeman, if you aren’t an American), or should it have a more restrained role in world affairs?

Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham believe that the US should be an unmitigated bulwark against tyrants, bullies and thieves. Republicans like Rand Paul think America should be more reticent to involve itself in issues that are not of substantial and explicit interest to American national security. President Obama – like many Democrats – often falls somewhere in between these two views.

In the FIFA case, the US has decided to act as a sheriff and vowed “to end graft in FIFA.”

It has exercised its power well beyond its shores, in the posh confines of Zurich, Switzerland – demonstrating what the lawyers called “extraterritoriality.”

Now wanted for extradition to the US: Jack Warner. Andrea de Silva/Reuters

On the – let’s face it – relatively flimsy basis that money was moved through US banks, it had people arrested across the globe. And even when some returned to their home countries, it used local courts to press its demands for extradition – Jack Warner in Trinidad being one notable example.

Not surprisingly, some cheered the US’s use of its power to reclaim the sanctity of football’s governing body. But it would be naïve to assume that was the universal response. One Argentinean magazine called the US’ behavior “Yankee imperialism.”

Vladimir Putin, sensing that this scandal might challenge Russia’s right to stage the 2018 World Cup, called it an American conspiracy – in effect, to paraphrase Prussian general and military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz’s famous adage, the FIFA scandal has become “geopolitics by other means.”

Blatter’s own daughter Corinne agreed with that assessment, although she was more discreet in not focusing on the Americans and the British. But Blatter himself was not so discreet in pointing the fingers at the Americans.

Leading the anti-Blatter charge: Michel Platini. Anders Vindegg, CC BY-SA

America’s supporters were just as predictable – the Europeans, led by the irascible, supremely talented former French player Michel Platini, who now heads Europe’s governing body. And yes, just as predictably for many Americans, France was one of the reportedly 18 European countries who defected from the supposedly unified European position and voted for Blatter’s reelection on Friday.

So the Europeans were as fragmented and incoherent as ever. But the French held true to their custom of opposing America’s unilateral exercise of power in an international forum.

It is Bush’s invasion of Iraq all over again!

Defining democracy

The second broader theme raised by the FIFA scandal is the question of the true meaning of democracy.

Like the UN, each member of FIFA gets one vote when it comes to electing the organization’s president. American Samoa gets the same number of votes as America. But unlike the UN, there is no Security Council to oversee the vote of the 209 members, no veto power to ensure a degree of unanimity.

He’s got the votes.

So British Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for Blatter to resign even before the vote took place went unheeded. And it proved relatively easy for Blatter, in the midst of the organization’s crisis, to muster the simple majority needed to win reelection in Friday’s vote.

Some critics called the process “undemocratic,” despite the universal franchise. Now many among the dissidents, including the English, are calling for European countries to withdraw from the next World Cup, the pinnacle of global soccer.

How could these vocal critics, mostly hailing from liberal democracies, reject the results of this process?

Well, as with voting in Russia, Gaza or Venezuela over the last decade, many in the US and Europe don’t like elections when “the wrong” people get elected. They object when they think that a formal process has been observed but the rule of law has been sacrificed to corrupt practices – what Americans used to call “Tammany Hall machine politics.”

There is plenty of evidence that Blatter’s FIFA has dispensed patronage and earned the loyalty of some of the smallest members of the organization relatively cheaply. But the whole case again raises the question of what means to “buy a vote” – whether it is by the purposeful bribing of officials or the process of simply bringing home the bacon.

Corporate responsibility in the modern age

The whole question of corruption brings us to the third theme – that of corporate social responsibility.

Over the course of the last decade, the world’s largest firms have embraced the notion that firms don’t just have to make money. They also have to be good corporate citizens. And from pharmaceutical firms to the Clinton Foundation, the American government has learned to partner with corporations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in implementing key aspects of US foreign policy – like the fight against Ebola in West Africa last year.

Likewise, the UN’s Global Compact partnership “asks companies to embrace universal principles and to partner with the United Nations” in the enlightened implementation of those principles. It advocates “an appeal by the private sector to Governments to promote anti-corruption measures and to implement policies that will establish systems of good governance.”

American firms were generally slow to accept the notion that they had a responsibility beyond their own shareholders. European firms really led that process in the early 2000s.

Yet the whole question of the FIFA scandal brings the role of corporations into sharp relief. From Visa to McDonalds, Coca-Cola to Budweiser, Adidas to …okay, Gazprom: the world’s largest firms partner with FIFA.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour airplane. 2010 World Cup - Shine 2010, CC BY-SA

No World Cup is complete without the accompanying bombardment of advertising.

As one reporter has succinctly suggested, “FIFA’s best friends are multinational corporations, and theirs is a friendship rooted in helping one another make lots and lots of money.” Many have remained silent about the current scandal or have crafted diplomatic comments.

The optimist might suggest that at least they are speaking up now, having largely ignored the deaths of scores of workers laboring in intolerable conditions in building the stadia for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. But these firms can’t claim they didn’t know what has been going on.

They knew there were problems when Michael Garcia, the chief investigator and author of a report on ethics in FIFA in the selection of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, resigned from his post in protest over the censorship of his report last December.

From a broader perspective, these companies’ willingness to tolerate FIFA’s brazen institutional and individual corruption speaks volumes about the lack of progress in the field of global corporate citizenship. There has simply been too much money at stake for them to worry about corruption.

The role of global finance

And finally, of course, is the role of global banking.

The US Supreme Court tells us that corporations have the same rights as people. But unlike people, they don’t go to jail.

Fourteen FIFA officials have been indicted. Many more, we are confidently told, may be in the future.

But, even here we see the echoes of much bigger financial issues. For we can be sure that the bankers involved in the fraudulent wire transfers and money laundering at the heart of the Department of Justice’s case will not go to prison.

Like the malfeasance that led to the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the banks will get off with a fine at worst. Only the relatively “small fish” beneficiaries – the convicted FIFA officials – will go to jail.

So at the end of the day, the FIFA case isn’t really about football at all.

When an American gridiron football player takes a swing at his partner in a lift, we understandably make it a story about domestic violence. When an African-American hockey player is booed, we understandably make it a story about racism. When a football gets deflated, we make it a story about honor. So we had also better understand that this is a story about America’s role in the world: about its power, its allies and rivals, its great corporations and – ultimately – the values it tries to promote.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 187,200 academics and researchers from 4,998 institutions.

Register now