A brief history of FIFA corruption under Sepp Blatter

The following is an article I wrote for Business Insider that went unpublished. 

During Sepp Blatter’s 17-year run as FIFA president, he has governed with “no term limit, no external oversight, no passion for business ethics, no appetite for reform and, apparently, no shame over the rampant scandals, corruption and match-fixing that have sullied the beautiful game,” according to New York Times sports reporter Jere Longman.

Longman wrote that in a scathing review of Blatter’s tenure as president of the international soccer governing body after several high-ranking FIFA officials were arrested Wednesday on widespread corruption charges spanning the last two decades.

Blatter, 79, was not charged on Wednesday and was reelected to a fifth term as FIFA president on Friday.

The Council of Europe — who are doing their own investigation into FIFA — said in January that “FIFA does not yet seem capable of putting an end to corruption scandals,” as reported by Bloomberg. The report noted that as head of nonprofit FIFA, Blatter makes somewhere in the “low double-digit millions” each year.

Here are some of the scandals Blatter has been linked to since he came to power in 1998.

1998 FIFA presidential election

How Blatter first gained power foreshadowed the 17 years since.

After the 24-year reign of former President Joao Havelange, the FIFA member federations had to choose beetween FIFA’s vice president Lennart Johansson or Havelange’s top advisor Sepp Blatter as new president of the largest sporting association in the world. 

Johansson ran on the platform of financial transparency and was considered the favorite to win. But then two curious things happened.

First, the Associated Press reported on “intense late lobbying” and alleged bribery in the hotel lobby where the vote would take place, including alleged offers of $50,000 to various African delegates. Second, Longman reported that Johansson requested that everybody’s vote be monitored to avoid manipulation.

Both Johansson’s request and his candidacy were defeated, and Blatter become soccer’s most powerful figure with a 111-80 vote.

The Associated Press says that at his victory press conference, Blatter denied reports of bribery and manipulation.

The 2010 vote to give the World Cup to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022

Up until this point, giving World Cup tournaments to two nations with highly questionable human rights records was seen as the biggest blunder during Blatter’s tenure as president. 

The Associated Press says the decision demonstrated “a culture of entitlement and disregard for rules by some executive committee members which had festered on Blatter’s watch.”

According to a 2014 New York Times article, soccer officials on the World Cup committee sought gifts and personal favors for their vote, like jobs for relatives, investments in their private businesses, and large sums of cash.

Several members of that executive voting committee have since been arrested or have resigned from FIFA, while a FIFA ethics committee has issued fines and penalites to other voting members for their role in what former FIFA ethics investigator Michael J. Garcia said was “serious and wide-ranging issues” regarding the bidding and selection process for those two World Cups.

Garica had issued a 430-page report citing corruption in the bid process for those world Cup locales, which FIFA blocked from being released to the public, prompting Garcia to resign in protest. 

In his resignation statement, Garica wrote “no independent governance committee, investigator or arbitration panel can change the culture of an organization.”

On Thursday, in the wake of this latest scandal, FIFA reiterated that it is still committed to hosting the worlds most popular (and lucrative) sporting event in those countries, the Telegraph reported. 

Swiss officials announced yesterday that they have opened criminal cases related to the bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Mohamed Bin Hammam

The 2011 FIFA elections were a close race between Blatter and Qatari FIFA delegate Mohamed Bin Hammam, who was boosted by the fact that Qatar had just been awarded the World Cup. 

Bin Hammam ran on the promise of more transparency within FIFA, although allegations were already swirling about his involvement in a vote-buying scandal to secure Qatar’s place as 2022 World Cup host.

Thirty-five votes from the North American delegation (CONCACAF) were seen as extremely important for both candidates, according to the Associated Press.

One month before the elections, Blatter pledged $1 million dollars of FIFA money to CONCACAF. Bloomberg reports that when Hamman tried a similar tactic in Trinidad – promising $40,000 to each Caribbean delegate for their vote — CONCACAF delegate Chuck Blazer blew the whistle on him to FIFA, just days before the election.

Bin Hammam dropped out of the race and shortly after, CONCACAF head Jack Warner (more on him later) outed Bin Hammam for his involvement in the Qatar vote-buying scandal. Meanwhile, Blatter was reelected to his fourth term, which at the time he had promised would be his last, Bloomberg notes.

Hamman has since said he suspected he had been entrapped, and Bloomberg reports that some of the Caribbean soccer officials who were fined or suspended for their involvement in the scandal now serve on FIFA committees.

In 2012, a court of arbitration reviewing the vote-buying scandal ruled there was “insufficient direct evidence linking Bin Hammam with the money,” adding that they were “not making any sort of affirmative finding of innocence in relation to Mr Bin Hammam,” and “It is more likely than not that Mr Bin Hammam was the source of the monies.”

Later that year Garica’s report found Bin Hammam guilty of “repeated violations” of the ethics code which forced him to resign before he was later slapped with a lifetime ban. 

Kickbacks

Kickbacks, or cash given for a favor of some type, have been part of FIFA since Havelange was president, and are at the center of this latest scandal. Sports Marketing Companies give FIFA delegates kickbacks to currie their favor in the hopes that FIFA will grant them the broadcast rights of their international soccer tournaments – a lucrative asset considering the worldwide popularity of soccer – which they in turn sell to networks.

For many years FIFA received kickbacks from marketing partner International Sport and Leisure (ISL), according to the Associated Press. In 2001, ISL fell into bankruptcy, a crisis that threatened the financial stability of FIFA and created deep rifts within the international soccer organization, with many calling for Blatter’s resignation, the AP reports.

Blatter retained power and opted not to out those who took kickbacks by blocking legal efforts from a Swiss supreme court. This sent a clear message to soccer officials around the world that, as the AP writes, “Blatter is pragmatic about the morals of those whose support and votes he needs.”

In 2013, a FIFA ethics judge ruled that Blatter “may have been clumsy” in his dealings with the kickbacks, but his actions did not constitute misconduct.

Jack Warner

Jack Warner is one of the 14 FIFA officials indicted on corruption charges today (he has plead guilty), and a man the Associated Press says was given “free rein” to abuse his power under Blatter.

Warner headed CONCACAF from 1990 to 2011 and has been dogged by numerous accusations of corruption. Some of those accusations include illegally profiting from the resale of World Cup tickets in 2006, withholding bonuses of the Trinidad and Tobago players who participated in that tournament (Warner is a native of Trinidad and Tobago), shopping his world cup ballot to the highest bidder, and his participation in the 2011 scandal with Hammam to buy the votes of Caribbean soccer officials.

After that scandal, Mr. Warner was forced to resign amid an ethics committee case against him, the New York Times reports. Once he complied, Blatter ended all investigations into Warner, and FIFA released a statement saying “the presumption of innocence is maintained”.

Woman’s soccer

Sexism is another issue that has plagued FIFA for years under Blatter.

In a Sports Illustrated story published last year, US soccer star Abby Wambach recalls a time her and her now-wife Sarah Huffman met Sepp Blatter at the 2013 the World Player of the Year awards gala in Zurich, Switzerland.

“Sepp Blatter came into our little area, and he walked straight up to Sarah and thought she was [Brazilian star] Marta,” says Wambach in the story. “Marta!” Blatter said, hugging a bewildered Huffman, who doesn’t look much like Marta. “You are the best! The very best!”

“He had no idea who Marta was, and she’s won the award five times,” Wambach said. “For me, that’s just a slap in the face because it shows he doesn’t really care about the women’s game.”

To his credit, Blatter has expanded the woman’s game, and last year pledged to double the funding for woman’s soccer programs around the world, the Guardian reports.

But his enthusiasm for woman’s soccer is often taken with a grain of salt, especially after his now-infamous suggestion in 2004 that woman “wear tighter shorts” to increase interest in the game. It is also worth noting that there is only one woman – the delegate from Burundi, Lydia Nsekera – on FIFA’s 209 person executive committee. 

Last October Wambach and several other female soccer stars filed a lawsuit against FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association, claiming gender discrimination in the decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf (which starts June 6 by the way), 

Artificial turf changes the way the ball bounces and leaves players more susceptible to injury than natural grass, and the plaintiff’s argument simply was that FIFA would never allow the men’s World Cup to be played on artificial turf, as the Sports Illustrated article outlined.

The lawsuit was ultimately dropped in January. USA Today reports that FIFA told the players that they would not comply with a court ruling even if they won and also showed a refusal to “negotiate in good faith”.  

Current scandal

This brings us to the current scandal in which 14 individuals, among them high-ranking FIFA officials and sports marketing representatives, have been indicted on charges of corruption relating to more than $150 million in alleged bribes and kickbacks from the 1990s to today. In all, there are 47 charges relating to racketeering, wire fraud, money-laundering conspiracies, and other offenses listed in the Department of Justice’s report. 

“The individuals indicted were expected to uphold the rules that kept soccer honest. They instead corrupted the business to enrich themselves,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a press conference on Wednesday.

In short, the DOJ is accusing these men of a “”24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer,” according to the report. Four have already pleaded guilty.

Among those indicted are FIFA Vice President Jeffrey Webb, who is seen as the heir apparent to Blatter, who has remained conspicuously absent from the public eye since news of this latest scandal broke Wednesday morning.

Blatter did release this statement Wednesday afternoon: “As unfortunate as these events are, it should be clear that we welcome the actions and the investigations by the U.S. and Swiss authorities and believe that it will help to reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken to root out any wrongdoing in football.”

What happens to Blatter now?

Although Blatter has not been charged, there is a chance some of the 14 arrested might present prosecutors with information that is damaging to Blatter.

Longman added that Blatter recently compared himself to a mountain goat, saying “I cannot be stopped. I just keep going.” 

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