Growing up in the developing world makes understanding FIFA a lot easier. As a kid in Ecuador, I was always aware that institutions were not to be trusted. Everyone knew the government was corrupt – often shamelessly so. The idea of the bad guys getting caught and leaving office was more or less a fantasy. It rarely, if ever, happened (at most, the central figure usually ended up leaving the country), and even when the head of government did change, it didn’t take long to realize that nothing else did.
Despite that – or, perhaps, because of it – one person never managed to hold on to power for long: By the time I finished high school, 11 different presidents had occupied the office. But constant turnover at the top is no different that a dictatorship, really. Non-stop regime change rarely brings meaningful reform, and an entrenched leader – well, why would he bother to do such a troublesome thing?
In the past 41 years only two men have occupied the highest office in FIFA, the most powerful sporting organization in the world. And the one that was farcically re-elected last Friday to a fifth term, Sepp Blatter, served as a lieutenant for the previous one, Joao Havelange (who, incidentally, is still alive at the ripe old age of 99.).
Did it matter that last Wednesday, only two days before FIFA held elections, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the indictment of nine officials and five corporate executives on racketeering and corruption charges? No. Did it matter that the most resounding quote from the resulting press conference – “Let me be clear: this indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation” – seemed to target pretty much everyone involved with FIFA over the past few decades? Not one bit. Blatter won the election easily, and he knew he would: In his before a ballot had even been cast, he brazenly spoke of “a long and winding road to rebuilding trust.”
But it didn’t matter what he said, really. He could have run on the Let’s Give Every Country a Unicorn platform, and he would’ve been elected anyway. The election was over before it started…a phenomenon that millions of humans all over the world experience whenever they go to the ballot box.
To better understand how FIFA has operated in the past few decades, there is plenty for you to digest. There is ESPN’s phenomenal five-part E:60 special on the subject. There is the New York Daily News’ detailed piece on Chuck Blazer, a grotesquely corrupt ex-CONCACAF official who the FBI managed to flip four years ago. Here’s FiveThirtyEight telling you why FIFA’s own structure promotes the kind of corruption that keeps people like Blatter in power for so long. And there’s the Sunday Times’ famed report on how Qatar effectively bought the 2022 World Cup. I could literally fill out ten more paragraphs with links to pieces that would have you flinging your arms in despair at how such a nefarious organization has gone about unchecked for so long. Oh, what the heck – here’s one more:
— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) May 27, 2015
Or you could also just imagine FIFA as some sort of King’s Landing, if Ned Stark never set foot in the place or Tyrion Lannister didn’t pick up that crossbow.
In short, Loretta Lynch is perfectly correct: there are many more shady FIFA deeds waiting to be uncovered. And it’s not hard to assume that the entire soccer world is indeed hoping Ms. Lynch and her team do not stop any time soon. Well, except the segment associated with shady FIFA stuff.
But that won’t happen overnight, even if there are strong hints at more indictments on the horizon, and even as the money trail inches closer to Blatter by the day. The U.S. Department of Justice has not embarked on such a campaign against FIFA before, and they’ve already found a way to get four guilty pleas out of individuals who have cooperated with their investigation. Can they flip any of the people they indicted on Wednesday? Only time will tell. Those arrested still have to be extradited (you better believe they’ll fight tooth and nail against that fate), and well, the only legal processes that wrap up in 45 minutes take place on TV.
So what now? FIFA seems to stand divided. On one side you have Blatter and his 133 supporting countries. On the other, you have UEFA and its 54 members (even though France apparently voted for Blatter), along with the U.S. and various prominent South American countries. There is talk of secession, and the head of UEFA, Michel Platini, openly asked Blatter to step down after the allegations came out. What will FIFA’s main sponsors do? Can they put any pressure on Sepp? ESPNFC’s’ Gabriele Marcotti paints a very depressing landscape of very little change, or worse, incremental change driven by Blatter himself.
If you’re wondering what Blatter is saying after the election, well, here you go: It’s a conspiracy! It’s revenge! I’m the victim! Also, a warning:
Sepp to Swiss TV: ‘’I forgive everyone but I don’t forget.’’
— Bob Ley (@BobLeyESPN) May 30, 2015
The saddest part of the whole FIFA affair is that the world’s love of the game has enabled this mess in the first place. Attention in the U.S. will soon shift to the Women’s World Cup, which starts in Canada in just four days. The Copa América – an event which allegedly has $20 million in bribes associated with it, per the indictment – will start in Chile not two weeks from now, and all 10 participating South American countries (plus Mexico and Jamaica) will happily forget about the FIFA scandal during it. The English Premier League starts on August 8, and the other European leagues will do the same around that time. The ball will keep rolling, the goals will make millions roar and Sepp Blatter will flash his mischievous grandpa grin once again.
That lasting image of a happy Blatter sitting comfortably atop FIFA is why everyone who loves the game, our very beautiful game, should remember to root for Loretta Lynch and her team in the coming months and years. It’ll be extremely hard, since neither she nor her team will show up at Old Trafford, the Maracaná or the Santiago Bernabéu. The U.S. Department of Justice did not make it into the Champions League, either. We’re more than likely to forget her and the whole affair once Lionel Messi scores his first hat-trick of the season, or even before, when the big European clubs start signing stars for obscene amounts of money.
But the U.S. Department of Justice has become our only hope against a dastardly squad that has gone undefeated for way too long. We might as well adapt the Joy Division song that was once an anthem for legendary Manchester United winger Ryan Giggs: “Lyyyynch….Lynch will tear you apart…again!”
Or at least we hope she does.