While four countries are playing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament at Cowboys Stadium this Sunday, the real
high drama black comedy in soccer is happening thousands of miles away. It came to a head at last Wednesday’s farcical election for the presidency of FIFA, soccer’s governing body, and the resulting scandal has brought some delicious chaos to the organization that’s running the Gold Cup. I didn’t have the space to run through it all on our Night & Day page, so I thought I’d break down this complicated story in a Q&A format. Read, and be appalled.
What is CONCACAF?
The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football. They control soccer from Canada down to Panama, and the Caribbean islands as well.
What do they have to do with FIFA?
They’re one of seven bureaucratic agencies that make up FIFA. Each confederation is devoted to its own continent.
Who runs FIFA?
Joseph “Sepp” Blatter (Switzerland), the 75-year-old incumbent who has been in charge since 1998. Last week he was running for re-election against 61-year-old challenger Mohammed bin Hammam (Qatar), the president of the Asian confederation.
Wait, Blatter’s name is familiar. Didn’t he say a few years ago that women’s soccer would draw more viewers if the women wore tight outfits?
Yes, but there are fresher embarrassing quotes from him. After Qatar was given the rights to host World Cup 2022, people asked questions about the Qatari government’s deplorable treatment of homosexuals. Blatter responded that gay people should just abstain from sex while they’re attending World Cup 2022.
Ew! What was the election about?
Power, mostly. Bin Hammam was running as the candidate of change, but he’s been working in soccer’s bureaucracy since 1972, and no one expected his administration of the world’s biggest sport to be much different from Blatter’s.
So what was the big deal?
Bin Hammam was forced to withdraw after he was accused of buying votes in favor of his home country. Many people at the time thought Qatar’s victory — over USA and other countries like Australia that would have been worthier hosts — was fishy at the time.
What does CONCACAF have to do with this?
Confederation president Austin “Jack” Warner (Trinidad & Tobago) controls a bloc of votes by delegates of Caribbean nations. He’s accused of colluding in the vote-buying to throw the vote to Qatar.
How was he caught?
Warner is a longtime Blatter supporter, but in the days leading up to the election, he showed signs that he was switching his loyalties to bin Hammam. That was when confederation general secretary Chuck Blazer (USA), who had worked as Warner’s right-hand man for 21 years, picked that moment to turn on his boss. Blazer turned state’s evidence, providing evidence of collusion between bin Hammam and Warner regarding the vote for World Cup 2022 and getting both suspended from their duties. They’re now facing criminal charges and a lifetime ban from the sport .
This Blazer guy sounds like a real American hero, doesn’t he?
In any walk of life, whistle blowers are seldom the clean ones. If Blazer had an attack of conscience, the timing of it was awfully convenient. He also lived high on the hog for years, and if you believe the accusations in this amazing forum post from a disgruntled former employee, Blazer’s a disgusting sexist pig as well as a crook. (The forum post mentions strip clubs and massages with happy endings. Whoopee!) Nevertheless, Blazer’s information has shed a lot of light on the often secretive machinations of FIFA.
How did Warner and bin Hammam respond to the charges? Weren’t they pissed?
Oh, yes. Bin Hammam accused Blatter of corruption, which launched an ethics probe. Warner responded by waving around an e-mail from FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke (Belgium) claiming that Qatar had “bought” the rights to host the 2022 World Cup. He then promised a “tsunami” of dirt about other FIFA officials, and believe me, when a guy from a tiny island nation uses the word “tsunami” like that, everyone should take notice.
So what happened? Where’s the tsunami?
Valcke managed to wriggle away from his e-mail, claiming that he used the word “bought” to refer to the lavish amounts of money the Qataris spent on their campaign. Honestly, the message by itself wouldn’t have stood up in court. Meanwhile, Warner’s tsunami hasn’t been forthcoming, and in fact he was seen before the election lobbying other Caribbean countries to vote for Blatter.
Why would he do that?
It’s been suggested that Blatter offered Warner his job back or some other sinecure to get him to hush up. There’s no proof of this, but when you have an organization like FIFA that conducts so much business in secret, conspiracy theories tend to break out.
Has anybody else aired dirty laundry?
Have they ever. It’s come out that in exchange for his vote for England to host World Cup 2018, South American general secretary Nicolás Leóz (Paraguay) wanted the FA Cup to be named after him. Never mind that the FA Cup is a domestic tournament that only English teams are eligible to win. Never mind that Leóz has never been involved in any way with English soccer. He still wanted his name on that trophy. He might as well have asked the English to carve his name on the Moon in letters visible from Earth.
Fred Lunn (Bahamas) took photographs of the $40,000 in American $100 bills that he was given as a bribe to vote for Qatar to host World Cup 2022.
FIFA is in control of billions. Are their delegates and their votes really bought that cheaply?
The delegates are given enviable perks, but you can’t really feed your family with first-class flights and five-star hotels. For the people running soccer in these small Caribbean nations, $40,000 might be several years’ worth of salary.
What has happened to Blazer?
CONCACAF’s acting president Lisle Austin (Barbados), a longtime ally of Warner’s, tried to fire Blazer from his position. However, the confederation put out a statement saying that Austin actually had no authority to do so, and that Blazer’s job was intact. FIFA backed them.
So CONCACAF publicly said that its own president had no idea what he was doing?
So the election was postponed, right? I mean, how can you hold an election when both candidates are accused of such large-scale corruption?
Never underestimate the shamelessness of FIFA. After a cursory investigation, FIFA’s ethics committee cleared Blatter and suspended bin Hammam. Bin Hammam had already withdrawn his candidacy for president, so Blatter ran unopposed and won. Journalists questioned him contentiously about this whole thing on Monday, and Blatter angrily denied that soccer was in crisis before storming out of the press conference, saying, “I am the president of FIFA. You cannot question me!”
Isn’t that exactly what bad leaders do?
Didn’t someone try to stop the election?
The English FA (short for Football Association) moved to delay things for further investigation. They were backed by the Scottish FA.
What happened to that?
They got slammed. Julio Grondona (Argentina) accused them of spreading lies and Costakis Kostokoumnis (Cyprus) swore that no one outside FIFA would influence FIFA’s actions. It was all rather cult-like. The motion was then voted down.
How messed up is that?
About as messed up as catching your employee with his hand in the cash register, only to have him indignantly lecture you about integrity.
So this massive organization is completely unaccountable?
No. Before the election, a number of FIFA’s heavyweight corporate sponsors (Visa, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, adidas, and Emirates Airlines) made public statements expressing their “concern” or “distress” with the whole situation. Blatter’s tone changed quickly from defiance to conciliation after that.
So we’re relying on giant multinational corporate conglomerates to enforce the rules of decent behavior?
Not exactly an ideal situation, is it?
What happens now?
Blatter has promised more transparency in the way the sport is run and is appointing an independent commission to make recommendations.
Hasn’t Henry Kissinger been named to the commission?
Yes. He’s a longtime soccer fan. A senior official from the Nixon administration will be trying to restore integrity to the sport.
That doesn’t sound good. Could anybody else come in and clean up this mess?
The Swiss government. FIFA’s corporate headquarters are located in Blatter’s home country. The government could change laws and financial regulations to force the sport’s ruling body to open its books.
This would be the same Swiss government that lets its bankers operate in secrecy? The country that has become famous for its lax business oversight?
The very same.
They’re not going to do anything, are they?
Well, interestingly enough, Swiss president Micheline Calmy-Rey has been talking publicly about doing just that. FIFA is legally considered a charity, and the government may use their tax-exempt status as leverage. Of course, all of this is just talk at the moment, but given how many strange developments we’ve already seen, it wouldn’t be so odd if the government decided to crack down.
Wait, an organization that makes billions of dollars every year is considered a charity and pays no taxes to anyone?
Yes. You’ll have to ask the Swiss how that happened.
Can’t anyone else stand up to FIFA and Blatter?
After last year’s World Cup, the French government tried to open an inquiry into the appalling behavior of their soccer team in South Africa. They weren’t trying to embarrass FIFA or Blatter; they simply wanted to know how their team went so wrong. Nevertheless, FIFA threatened to throw the French team out of future World Cups and European Championships if their government interfered in the management of the team. The French government knuckled under, because nobody in France wants to see the soccer team out of those tournaments.
You mean FIFA can actually threaten foreign governments?
There’s a long and sordid history of dictators messing with soccer leagues and teams in their own countries, so there’s some sense to having a governing body with this kind of power. Still, if FIFA can threaten the French, they can threaten anyone.
What has the U.S. Soccer Federation been doing through all this?
Thinking of other things and wishing it would stop. (That’s a line from a current movie, by the way.) The soccer higher-ups in our country haven’t even put out a public statement in response to all this, and the silence has been deafening.
Why? Is this related to the Qataris beating out USA for World Cup 2022?
Probably. Most of the corruption charges have been related to bin Hammam buying votes for his native Qatar. Don’t think it’s lost on Blatter that an American wound up taking down his chief rival. Now the head of German soccer has called for an investigation into last December’s vote, and there’s talk that the World Cup 2022 bidding process might be done over. That does give U.S. Soccer a reason to keep their mouth shut.
Do we want to get a World Cup that way?
I don’t know. Do we?
We don’t even know if there’ll be a re-vote, or if USA will win it. Isn’t this just like enabling a foreign dictator in the hopes that he’ll do something that’s in your country’s interests?
Sometimes that works. The thing is, when it goes wrong, it tends to go very wrong.
What about the fans?
What about them? As long as they pay to cheer on their local club or national team, FIFA doesn’t care. In February, CNN sportswriter Grant Wahl announced his own outsider bid for FIFA presidency and got a huge groundswell of public support from fans in many different countries. His run got nowhere, because none of the national federations would nominate him. His stunt demonstrated what a closed shop FIFA has become.
Are there any Ohio State football fans looking at all this and saying to themselves, “At least we’re not soccer”?
You couldn’t blame them if they did, although the corruption at OSU seems to have been even more rampant. Not by much, though.
How much of all this will impact what happens on the field on Sunday?
Um, you’re actually supposed to say “pitch” when it comes to soccer…
Fine, fine! How much will it impact what happens on the pitch?
Very little. Playing for national teams is different from playing for professional teams or colleges. It’s an honor to represent your country, and the intentions of the players at the Gold Cup, at least, can be taken at face value.
What would you like to see at Sunday’s games?
Good soccer. Also, signs saying “Blatter Out” or “Clean Up Soccer” or something of that sort. Creative chanting wouldn’t hurt either. While FIFA’s leadership seems immune to embarrassment — much like the leadership of so many other organizations and governments these days — the fans can certainly try.