Christers corner: U.S. justice system's role vs. FIFA: Good or bad?

Photo: John Taylor/Flickr

Photo: John Taylor/Flickr


Comment by Christer Ahl
What does it mean that the U.S. Justice Department has been the instigator of unravelling what has been taking place in FIFA? In this comment piece, Christer Ahl looks at the pros and cons of the U.S. involvement.

It may seem that the answer to the headline’s question is self-evident, except perhaps to Sepp Blatter and a few others. Clearly, the U.S. Justice Department has played a pivotal role in getting persons in the FIFA system apprehended or indicted, something that otherwise would not have happened. And the aggregate of these arrests may have helped confirm to a global audience just how widespread the corruption has been. But there have also been suggestions, both here in the United States and elsewhere, that perhaps it is a bit unfortunate that this major impetus has come precisely from the U.S. I will share some of those reactions, in combination with my own reflections.

First, it is likely that no other entity may have had the well-established methods and practices which are needed to apply pressure on individuals, for instance through plea bargains, confiscation of assets and blocking of transactions. Of course, this was made possible because one U.S. citizen, Chuck Blazer, the former CONCACAF Secretary General, felt compelled to cooperate, and because so many other CONCACAF and CONMEBOL officials had been taking advantage of the U.S. banking system without considering the unpleasant consequences that this might one day have. And this was the main, and clearly legitimate, basis for U.S. Justice to become involved.

It also seems clear that the methods available to the U.S. Justice Department dove-tailed very nicely with the laws, methods and limitations applicable to the Swiss justice system. While, in recent time, legislation has been introduced to remove some of the excessive protection for the top officials of Swiss-based international sports federations, this would not, in itself, have been anywhere near enough to give cause for substantial or widespread action at this time.

Suggestions of questionable motivation for the actions
In international media, there has been some ‘snickering’ that the U.S. actions have had less than pure motives. It is not so surprising that Sepp Blatter has expressed the view that USA would never be involved if it was not for the want of revenge for losing out to Qatar in the quest for organizing the 2022 World Championship. It is perhaps more puzzling that other media reports, while at the same time lamenting the difficulties in ‘cleaning up the FIFA mess’ speedily, also raise questions as to the motives and the legitimacy of the U.S. involvement

To some extent, the questions seem to be raised in the context of the ‘accusation’ that the U.S. is seen as the perennial ‘bully’ in a geopolitical sense, throwing its weight around in international affairs. Some writers have hinted at the notion that the U.S. is often ignoring international law while at the same time using its position of power to dictate to others. But there are no clear explanations as to how this fits in with the actions regarding FIFA. Others suggest that it would be better if the lead role was played by a country that is ‘major football nation’, and others note that U.S. sports structures and traditions are so different that “Americans are not the best ones placed to understand the fine points of the nature and workings of international sports federations!”

These arguments seem rather misplaced, given that the U.S. legal actions have in fact contributed to shedding light on the scope and depth of corruption and misdeeds in the FIFA structure. At an earlier stage, observers may have been far too inclined to place all the emphasis on the actions and rhetoric of one person only, namely the FIFA president. But now it has probably become more apparent that, as some of us have argued, real reform in FIFA requires far more than just replacing the president. The problems are too systemic, and the participants and beneficiaries in the corruption are far too numerous. It has also become apparent that continental confederations which, given the lack of experience on the part of the many new and feeble football nations, theoretically should be able to play a positive and constructive role, in fact more often constitute a particular nexus of power abuse and corrupting influence.

Further ramifications of the U.S. actions
Unlike the normal tendency in media to give (too) little attention to matters of mismanagement and corruption in sports, clearly the recent actions involving FIFA have been given a lot of coverage. It has been noticed also by those who ignore the sports columns or have no particular interest in football. The TV and internet coverage, together with major newspaper headlines have ensured that. So, for instance, even persons who have never approached me regarding such issues or about my previous role in international sports, are now finally ‘getting’ the realities regarding power abuse and corruption in international sports, far beyond FIFA and football.  

This is of course in a sense quite healthy, but it is also very sad. Because for many, their initial contact with football involves not the beauty of the game but a much darker side. For some Americans, it may even tend to confirm their biases that the ‘non-American’ sport of soccer is really not at the same level as the traditional U.S. sports. And they may even be ready to believe that U.S. sports are somehow immune to corruption and mismanagement. Reactions among some of these observers also include the suspicion that the involvement of the U.S. Justice is resented so much abroad that it would work against U.S. interests in the future. For instance, there has been speculation that it would be detrimental to the opportunities for the U.S. to be selected as the host or the Olympic Games or a football World Championship in the near future. Personally I am ready to dismiss such arguments.

Both in the U.S. or elsewhere, it remains a reality that the active football players, even those who owe their living and their lucrative careers to this sport, seem to prefer to remain oblivious, or at least quite passive and silent, regarding what is so obviously happening. They do not seem to have the energy or inclination to get involved, and they obviously do not appreciate the potential risks that a festering problem may constitute. Therefore, it is somehow heartening that, perhaps with some influence of the actions of the U.S. justice system, major sponsors are finally reacting, both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world. At least there are explicit statements to that effect. The only fear is that the vacuum created, if such sponsors bail out, may not last very long. Unfortunately, it is likely that less scrupulous and publicity-hungry companies will rush to fill the void.

Finally, the turbulence which the U.S. action has helped instigate may have had an ironic impact in connection with the upcoming FIFA congress and elections in February. It seems that several conceivable candidates for the presidency became too ‘gun shy’ and have not put their names forward, which they might have done in a more low-key and normal transition. And among those who are in the running, it appears that the seemingly ‘more reasonable’ candidates are finding it difficult to gain traction. By contrast, some candidates who would make us think of the old saying “out of the frying pan, into the fire…” seem to be gaining more support. In particular, the mere thought of having the ‘well-known’ Sheikh Salman from Bahrain elected, with the notorious power-broker Sheikh Ahmad from his neighboring Kuwait as a puppet master, that would just seem a bit too much.  


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