May 27, 2015

FIFA's massive corruption scandal not a surprise


No one was surprised a bit by any of it. No one.

Not by the United States Department of Justice on Wednesday indicting 14 officials associated with FIFA, soccer’s corrupt-to-the-core governing body. Not by the already six guilty pleas and the mountain of evidence they’ll almost assuredly provide.

Not by Swiss authorities raiding a FIFA meeting at a swanky hotel in Zurich (where else would FIFA hold a meeting?), hauling guys right out of their rooms.

Not by the opening of two criminal investigations into the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, to Russia and Qatar respectively, which literally everyone knows was the work of bribes and favored government contracts.

(Proof? Who the hell would put the World Cup in Qatar in the middle of the summer without being bribed? Note: It’s since been moved to winter, screwing up all sorts of things.)

Nope, none of it was a surprise because this is FIFA … home of a thrilling, once-every-four-year global soccer tournament, a sweet video game and a thousand con men.


If anything was a surprise, it’s that more weren’t put in cuffs, most notably FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who merely oversees this international criminal organization, but like some kind of central casting Hollywood villain always manages to escape direct involvement as he shrugs his shoulders and expresses shock before washing his troubles away via champagne flute.
It wasn’t even a shock that FIFA was sticking to its arrogance and self-professed purity.

“In this case FIFA is the damaged party,” a FIFA spokesman said, in an earnest tone, going with a line of disgust that dozens of its own long-standing, high-ranking officials let this wonderful organization down. “This leads to the fact there were no searches in the offices in FIFA."

Well, there’s always next time … we can hope.

It’s worth noting that FIFA is adamant it will not move the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, not to a place such as the United States or England or Germany, which could easily host them on the fly.

They aren’t moving them, of course, because if you double-cross Vladimir Putin or the Qatari rulers, then the real dirt might spill and ole Sepp might be next.

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Look, it’s a good day to celebrate the arrests, even if it feels like throwing sand back into the ocean to stem a high tide.

FIFA is actually far more than the World Cup. It has a way of commanding power (or a cut of the revenue) over everything, from international friendlies, to youth leagues, to developmental programs in Third World countries. A corrupt FIFA corrupts the entire sport.

That said, the world is corrupt and FIFA represents the world.

In the United States, active media and partisan organizations like to make every single politician out to be a criminal. This is not without precedent, of course, but still, the truth is when it comes to bribes and kickbacks in sports we are rank amateurs.

There’s a reason the U.S. can no longer come close to winning the bidding process to host either an Olympics or the World Cup. We’re like a small, private D-III in Maine trying to wade into an SEC five-star recruiting battle, armed with a brochure pointing out our fine campus foliage and excellent academic opportunities.

Everything is for sale in some of these countries, and that means if there is an opportunity for an adult to profit off kids playing soccer … then so be it. There isn’t much we can do, other than sit out the ugly stuff and prosecute when possible.

The result, however, is that the money, the deals, the payouts, it all becomes a big haze when dealing with the vast expanses of something like FIFA.

There may not be any other organization like it, capable of rotting out the inside of every country on earth. It has the ultimate narcotic, humanity’s most popular game, and it sure as hell isn’t dealing it for free.

So as much as the indictments should cause anger, as much as it should end the reign of Blatter, who faces re-election later this week (it probably won’t, but it should), the real outrage should remain focused on the construction of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and the use of the kafala system, which is essentially forced labor.

This is the most horrific of sports scandals going, and it isn’t even close. This is one of the worst scandals in anything.


FIFA voters were (allegedly) paid off to award the World Cup to Qatar, a nation with no facilities built at the time but suddenly a need to build them swiftly. Qatar is a small yet exceptionally wealthy oil producing country. It lacks citizens who engage in manual labor. So contractors bring in laborers from Third World countries, often Nepal, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
These are the poorest of the poor, the most desperate of the desperate.

The Third World men take out a loan with a recruitment company to get a job and then are not allowed to leave Qatar until they can repay it, which usually takes years. In the meantime, a small sum is sent home to their families.

The men are put in filthy labor camps, pushed to work extended hours in brutal and unsafe conditions, and must push through extreme heat and exhaustion.

Too many die. From accidents, from heart attacks, from who knows? How many? The government of Qatar estimated last year that the project was on pace to have 5,000 perish building soccer stadiums, high-speed rails and opulent hotels for FIFA.

And that’s the government’s own projection. Which is almost assuredly low.

Five thousand.

Consider that number for a moment: 5,000 deaths, every one of them avoidable. Five thousand young, strong, industrious and incredibly driven men, worked to death so a soccer tournament can be staged in a place it should never be staged because staging it there meant lining enough pockets (allegedly) that you get to sleep under a nice Egyptian thread count at the Baur au Lac.

It’s awful, too awful at times to even fathom.

It’s FIFA.

The indictments on Wednesday are about money, but money eventually leads to the bodies of young Nepalese men getting shipped back to Katmandu in a cheap box to weeping families who were just trying to eat. All so a playground can be built.

“[FIFA] has yet to demonstrate any real commitment to ensuring Qatar 2022 is not built on a foundation of exploitation and abuse,” Amnesty International said last week in its latest report blasting the working conditions in Qatar.

That’s the impact of Sepp Blatter’s band of purse-snatchers. That’s the impact of FIFA gone nuts, claiming it is the aggrieved party here.

That’s why this stuff matters.

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On Tuesday, there was a story along these lines, from The Guardian newspaper in London. It reported that after earthquakes in the Himalayas killed at least 8,000 people, the government of Nepal asked Qatar to allow workers to return home to attend services and help family.

In many segments of the Qatar economy, the request was granted. Some were even given travel fees, according to the Nepal government. Not the World Cup construction workers though, an estimated 400,000 of them from Nepal.

The tight timetable and importance of the project were considered too dear to allow basic human dignity. They were treated like slaves.

“They have lost relatives and their homes and are enduring very difficult conditions in Qatar,” Tek Bahadur Gurung, Nepal’s labor minister, told the Guardian. “This is adding to their suffering.”

Request still denied. No one cared. No one stepped in.

No one spoke up, most notably Sepp Blatter and his parade of now-indicted FIFA henchmen. They apparently had a meeting to attend in Zurich and couldn’t be troubled.

No one was surprised a bit by that either. No one.

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