The Cable

The FBI’s Probe Into the Russian and Qatari World Cups Could Undermine FIFA Reform

A U.S.-led probe into FIFA could cement many of the bad behaviors allowed by Sepp Blatter.

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The writing has been on the wall for a week, but now it’s official: The United States is going after the World Cups in Russia and Qatar. And that, paradoxically, could make it harder for FIFA to achieve real reform.

As part of its investigation into the organization that runs the world’s most popular game, the FBI is looking into long-rumored allegations of graft in connection with the votes that awarded the 2018 tournament to Russia and the 2022 version to Qatar. Interpol also issued so-called “red notices” for six officials named in the U.S. indictment released last week, formally alerting other security services that those individuals — Jack Warner, Nicolás Leoz, Alejandro Burzaco, Hugo Jinkis, Mariano Jinkis, and José Margulies — are wanted by U.S. authorities.

New evidence of the mob-style investigation being used to build a case against FIFA and its recently-resigned president, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, also emerged Wednesday. According to court documents filed in New York Wednesday, former American FIFA official Chuck Blazer admitted to the FBI that he and other members of the organization’s executive committee took bribes in connection with the 1998 World Cup in France and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. He pleaded guilty in 2013 to charges of wire fraud, racketeering, money laundering, and income tax evasion, although details of his deal were not known until Wednesday.

Wednesday’s revelations are only likely to make conspiracy theorists more convinced that the U.S. Justice Department has ulterior motives for its investigation. FIFA officials have long chafed at America’s growing role in the soccer world and have dismissed U.S. criticism in the past, including a damning report from former U.S. attorney Michael Garcia. In 2012, he was tasked by FIFA to compile a report on corruption connected to the Russian and Qatari bids. Garcia resigned in 2014 after FIFA refused to make his findings public.

Others being targeted in the probe are stoking anti-American sentiment. Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that the United States had no standing to prosecute FIFA or question the 2018 tournament, a statement that easily plays into his narrative that Washington is looking for ways of improperly attacking Russia over issues like its meddling in Ukraine. The South African government is also pushing back against American allegations that it paid bribes to win the 2010 World Cup.

The U.S. role in the Qatari bid also raises eyebrows among the more conspiracy-minded football fans. Qatar won it over the United States in 2010, despite fierce lobbying efforts from former President Bill Clinton. He was so upset when Qatar was announced as the winner that he reportedly broke a mirror. A quick search of Twitter reveals many fans who believe the Justice Department probe is an attempt by the United States to steal away the games.

According to Jeff Thinnes, an expert on international corruption, the perception that the United States has an axe to grind could make it more difficult to achieve real reform within FIFA.

“This could be seen as a cabal led by the United States and the Swiss,” Thinnes told FP Wednesday, referring to the Justice Department probe.

Under Blatter’s watch, FIFA, many of whose members are widely believed to share simmering anti-American sentiments, has been resistant to Western calls for reform and transparency. Multiple investigations by Interpol have uncovered rampant match fixing of FIFA-sanctioned games. Blatter and other FIFA higher-ups promised to address the problem, but they have done little to follow through.

The organization, which is technically a nonprofit, has also refused to open its books to the public, raising questions about how it spends its money. Last year, FIFA generated revenues of more than $5.7 billion.

FIFA executives have proposed a number of initiatives to clear up the organization’s reputation. Internal ideas have suggested term limits for its officials; independent members who serve on oversight committees; the prohibition of cash transactions; and making salaries public. But FIFA has moved forward on none of these. Markus Kattner, FIFA’s head of finance and administration, recently said the organization wouldn’t disclose Blatter’s salary “because we don’t have to.”

Thinnes said that a U.S.-led reform effort would only cement long-held resistance to change. He suggested the best path to reform would be for FIFA to appoint an outside, independent group of advisors from around the world to oversee reforms within the organization once the Justice Department’s investigation runs its course.

“We’ve got engrained minions of Blatter scattered around the globe,” Thinnes added. “They were breeding grounds for his corruption.”

Photo credit: Kommersant Photo 

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