Friday, May 29, 2015

U.S. actions against FIFA only effects corruption on our side of the world, but then who really cares?

What does it mean when the U.S.’ major sports conduit—ESPN—treats the arrest of a dozen or so current and former associates of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) on bribery and corruption charges about as consequential as women’s basketball, and certainly rather less a noteworthy event than the news media considers it? Or the international scene, for that matter, where the UK’s Telegraph has been running a “live” webpage for the latest reactions to the scandal?

It of course reflects the interest in—or lack thereof—of the American sporting fan public in soccer. To be certain, there exists an insular class of white people for whom soccer (like golf remains today) is as it was over a century ago before the emergence of soccer clubs outside of Europe: A “discriminating” country club affair for the portentous of mind, but for the rest soccer is just one big snore for most in this country. Sure, there was some interest in the most recent World Cup, but this was more out of curiosity than genuine fandom. In what other sport is “scoring” dependent more on the vagaries of chance? How do you make kids dream about a sport where being a “star” is how well you contort your leg? How do you define being a “star” without impressive statistics to measure against competitors?

In any case, the European soccer community pretends to welcome the fact that country that has no particular fascination with soccer has actually taken upon itself the task of “cleaning up” soccer—mainly because Europeans were not its targets, but the “outliers.” But the problem with soccer is that it has become such a gigantic business entity unto itself that it cannot be controlled. Sure, some voting member of FIFA who determine World Cup site don’t mind selling their votes to the highest bidder, but representatives of nations are quite generous in their willingness to pay. Hundreds of millions of dollars are in the kitty to whoever asks. 

I skimmed through the U.S. District Court indictment of the FIFA associates, and while the amount of money being transacted and hidden away in secret slush funds and front companies is indeed mind boggling on the surface, we are again talking about money that is likely coming from governmental organizations. You think that Putin’s Russia, the “winner” of the 2018 Cup sweepstakes, isn’t corrupt to the core? What is most fascinating about the indictment is that it targeted only those persons within the U.S.’ supposed “sphere” of influence—that is to say, the Western  Hemisphere. Left untouched are any of the undoubtedly just as corrupt FIFA figures in Europe, Africa and Asia. 

The reason is obvious enough. If the U.S. had indicted a European, it would certainly raise hackles about Yankee arrogance (although it would be “fair play” given European attacks on Microsoft and Apple). The U.S would also be very unlikely to receive extradition rights from African or Asian nations. Corruption in FIFA is such a widespread and accepted mode of business that the original investigation that led to the indictments was pretty much ignored, and only resurfaced because U.S. attorneys with no love of soccer felt slighted by European haughtiness. It was a matter of personal (more than national) “pride.” How dare those snooty people.

But there is no doubt only the surface of corruption was scratched, and FIFA president Sepp Blatter has survived scandal-after-scandal on his watch, mainly because he appears to be personally “uncorrupted,” at least in as much as it cannot be proven that he has actually accepted bribes himself. However, Blatter’s tenure been nothing if not controversial, and soccer has become so enmeshed in a multitude of competing interests that ‘regulating” it has become more of a farce than the NCAA. To make matters worse, there are separate “continental” leagues that seem to be largely autonomous of FIFA, with their own rules governing the activity of players, agents, sponsors and even clubs. Billions of dollars are in the pot to divvy-up, and everyone wants their “fair share,” whether or legally or under-the-table. 

The surprise, then, is not that corruption is occurring, or even that the U.S. is flouting the “rules” of the game. It was, after all, the zealots of the U.S. anti-doping commission that gleefully brought down seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, not the Europeans.

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