The Cable

FIFA’s Emperor Doesn’t Seem to Mind He Has No Clothes

FIFA chief Sepp Blatter doesn't seem very concerned about the bribery investigation that could knock him from the top of world sport.

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Throughout his 17-year tenure, FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter has shrugged off allegations of bribery, match fixing, and human rights abuses committed by nations hosting the World Cup. So perhaps it is of no surprise that he now shows little alarm at new U.S. Justice Department allegations that pose the greatest threat to his foothold as the most powerful man in international sports.

In a statement Wednesday, Blatter praised the U.S. investigation accusing FIFA officials of raking in more than $150 million in illicit payments over the last two decades.

“Let me be clear: such misconduct has no place in football and we will ensure that those who engage in it are put out of the game,” he said.

The FBI investigation against FIFA is built in the same way federal investigators take on organized crime: Get low-level people involved in the conspiracy to spill the beans, and then use that information to target bigger fish up the food chain.

In this case, the dominoes started to fall when U.S. authorities nabbed Chuck Blazer, a former American FIFA official who pleaded guilty to a host of charges, including racketeering and income tax evasion. It’s widely believed that information Blazer gave to investigators led to the charges unsealed Wednesday.

ESPN recently reported that Blatter refuses to come to the United States because of the ongoing probe. One of the men named in the indictment, former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner, turned himself in to authorities Wednesday.

Like some mob bosses, Blatter has so far proved to be teflon. His statement shrugs off allegations of bribes connected to future World Cups. He has insisted that FIFA is doing enough to stop match fixing, despite Interpol investigations showing that gamblers are getting rich influencing the outcomes of FIFA-sanctioned games. And he has largely ignored the steep human cost that the soccer organization’s events have on poor nations around the world.

Qatar’s World Cup facilities are being built with slave labor. The affable but aloof Blatter was the first to bring the World Cup to Africa, when South Africa won its bid for the 2010 World Cup, but the $3 billion that Johannesburg spent to host the world’s most popular sporting event now sits largely unused while 53 percent of South Africans live in poverty. In Brazil, where protesters railed against the government for spending billions of dollars on the 2014 World Cup while hiking up public-transit fees, a $550 million stadium built to host matches is now used as a parking lot.

Blatter has also shrugged off concerns over player safety. The Women’s World Cup, scheduled to begin next month in Canada, is being held on numerous turf pitches, raising injury concerns among participants. Blatter responded to the dust-up by calling himself the “godfather” of women’s soccer.

All of this controversy has scared off major advertisers, including Sony and Emirates airline. Others, including Adidas and Visa, have sent veiled warnings that they too will pull support if FIFA doesn’t clean up its act.

But the loss of sponsorship dollars has had little impact on the federation’s bottom line. The reason Blatter is able to retain power amid these controversies is simple: He brings in billions of dollars that are shared with officials at regional soccer federations, like CONCACAF, which comprises nations from Central and North America and the Caribbean.

According to its 2014 annual report, FIFA — a nonprofit organization — had $5.7 billion in revenues last year. This money is shared with regional federations and is meant to grow the game through youth development programs. But these funds often end up in the hands of corrupt officials like Blazer, and, if Wednesday’s charges are true, some of the most prominent officials at FIFA.

He has also courted powerful allies. According to a report in the Daily Beast, the Clinton Foundation has received between $50,000 and $100,000 from FIFA.

Allegations of cash for votes are at the heart of a Swiss probe into Russia’s and Qatar’s World Cup bids. But even if the inquiry comes up empty, Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told Foreign Policy that the Qataris might be getting cold feet now, seven years before the event is set to kick off.

“It’s becoming clear that corruption is an entrenched problem at FIFA, which is likely to make Qatar very nervous about potentially being exposed” — if the monarchy paid off FIFA officials, Khatib said.

“Qatar’s key concern appears to be maintaining a clean image so it retains foreign direct investment,” Khatib said. “It’s one of the pillars of Qatari influence in the world.”

Photo credit: Paul Faith/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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