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May 27th, 2015 seemed to be a quiet day in quiet Zurich. The upscale Baur au Lac hotel was pleased to have under its roof, once again, the leaders of the soccer associations subscribed to FIFA; the annual congress of soccer’s worldwide ruling institution was scheduled to take place on the 29th. The activities of that congress would include electing a president, which seemed to be a sure win for the incumbent who had been the undisputed master for 17 years: Swiss-born Joseph Blatter. Under his command, FIFA had strengthened its presence in regions of the world with previously little to no soccer tradition, promoting and developing the sport through the allocation of funds for youth schools and infrastructure, among other initiatives. In return for this massive influx of money, Blatter obtained the loyalty of the benefitting associations’ directors; his re-election seemed to be a piece of cake. Blatter appeared to be the overlord of an institution that has more member countries than the United Nations, and national associations answered directly to FIFA’s Zurich leadership, rather than to their own governments. In other words, Blatter and his friends looked untouchable.
But everything changed on May 27th. That morning, a group of Swiss policemen, disguised as civilians, arrived at the Baur au Lac. They subtly presented the warrants they were carrying and requested entrance to the rooms of seven high-ranking FIFA officials, including two members of the Executive Committee. All the detainees had something in common: they were from the Americas, and were representatives of CONMEBOL and CONCACAF, FIFA’s ruling confederations in the continent. The reason for such a procedure? The United States had requested the arrests of these officials, as part of a judicial process led by the Attorney General herself, Loretta Lynch. The charges? Electronic fraud, extortion, and money laundering. Swiss police stealthily removed the defendants–some in handcuffs–from the hotel, and the process to send them across the Atlantic began. How was it possible that a country like the United States, where soccer is often relegated to the sidelines, was creating judicial turmoil that would topple FIFA’s elite in Latin America, where the sport enjoys top standing as a national pastime?
The answer is quite simple. The accusation stemmed from the discovery of a complex financial scheme in which CONMEBOL and CONCACAF officials accepted bribes for exclusive broadcasting and marketing rights during major events such as Copa Libertadores de América, Copa Oro and Copa América Centenario. These operations were performed through a network of bank accounts opened on U.S. soil, after a series of preparations and agreements that had also been made within U.S. borders. Therefore, it was the United States judicial system, and not those of the countries of origin of the accused, that had jurisdiction to act.
Two key figures lie at the heart of the investigation. One of them is Chuck Blazer. As Secretary General of CONCACAF from 1990 to 2011, Blazer became famous not only because of his gargantuan, bearded appearance, but also his extravagant, boastful way of life. A typical day for Blazer might include a ten course meal and petting his cats, who lived in their own Trump Tower apartment. Sustaining this way of life didn’t appear feasible, even with the generous salary he earned at CONCACAF, so his behavior drew the authorities’ attention. He was finally held accountable for the acceptance of multi-million dollar bribes, along with many other illegal forms of income generation. Yielding to the pressure of the judicial officials, Blazer pled guilty in November of 2013. He surrendered $1.9 million and offered his collaboration to help unravel the tangled yarn of CONCACAF’s corruption. Since then, Blazer’s evidence has proved fundamental in pressing charges against the defendants, a group that includes his former boss, Jack Warner, a populist politician in Trinidad and Tobago, who presided over CONCACAF and served as a FIFA Vice President.
The other central figure in the investigation is Loretta Lynch. Before her appointment as the U.S. Secretary of Justice, she served as the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. It was in that post that she learned about the fraudulent business of soccer authorities. Working simultaneously with the FBI and the IRS, Lynch slowly followed the thread and found illegal transactions hidden in financial entities in New York and beyond. Her team ran into Blazer’s file, and, by turning the financial felon into a precious informant, they discovered who else was implicated. Given that FIFA’s leadership was historically controlled by men and embroiled in machismo culture, it was striking to see a woman enforcing justice that would oust a corrupt and seemingly untouchable enterprise. Although FIFA’s obscure maneuvers were an open secret to the Latin American public, the shock was that they were finally prosecuted by law.
It has been a year since the first arrests at Baur au Lac. The list of officials involved grew over months, and it includes no less than the crème de la crème of continental soccer: three former CONMEBOL presidents (Nicolás Leoz, Eugenio Figueredo, and Juan Ángel Napout); three former CONCACAF presidents (the above mentioned Jack Warner, Jeffrey Webb, and Alfredo Hawit); as well as former presidents of the national soccer associations of Colombia, Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Cayman Islands, Venezuela, Brazil, Peru, Panama, Ecuador, and Guatemala. Most of these officials have been already arrested or turned themselves in, and several will surely follow in Blazer’s footsteps and cooperate to get a sentence reduction. From an institutional point of view, however, soccer has been severely wounded. The already battered trust in officials has been now reduced to dust, and it will take a lot of work by their successors in order to rescue even some credibility.
After Europe, South America is soccer’s largest stronghold, and this makes the impact on CONMEBOL much larger than that on CONCACAF. CONMEBOL’s top club competition, Copa Libertadores, and its major national team event, Copa América, are both in the eye of the hurricane. It took months to dispel rumors of the possible cancellation of Copa América Centenario, a special event to celebrate the 100th year of the tournament slated to take place in the United States. For many in South America, this is will be an exhibition tournament, or a product of marketing tainted by the corrupt recent past. More optimistic voices believe Copa América Centenario could be the first step towards a clean era for soccer in the continent. At the national level, now-headless associations are experiencing a power struggle, which only leads to big doubts as to where soccer in the Americas is headed. Will it lead to the rise and dominance of new corrupt gangs, or will a process of reflection and cleansing emerge triumphant? Will the involvement of the United States generate more skepticism due to its geopolitical influence and historic meddling in Latin America, or be welcomed as a guarantee to keep soccer away from criminals?
It is clear that the crisis will not be solved in the short term. Those who fill in the vacancies created by the arrests and bans will need to be conscious of the fact that they are no longer above the law. It will be in the hands of these successors to prevent that a lack of scruples continues to undermine soccer’s institutions from within. They alone can ensure that we never again risk watching FIFA’s leaders, covered in sheets and shame, exit through the back door of the Baur au Lac.