The bribery and corruption scandal surrounding FIFA is not something we should be shocked by, no more than Captain Renault was really shocked by the gambling in Rick's casino in the movie Casablanca, according to Derek Shearer. FIFA had long been recognized as an unaccountable, monopolistic organization where money was routinely traded for favors, said Shearer, a professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental who teaches a course on "Sports and Diplomacy." "But FIFA was a private organization, based in Switzerland, and it was very hard to get a legal fulcrum to go after it," Shearer told a Global Café Breakfast meeting of LAWAC on Tuesday. What was surprising was that FIFA would be suddenly dragged into the legal limelight by - of all places - the US, a country where soccer is really just known as the game "where you drop off your 10 year-old daughter" (according to comedian John Oliver).
Soccer is, nonetheless, the world's most popular game, and the World Cup, held every four years, is watched by more people than the Olympics. FIFA, the sport's international governing body, generates billions of dollars every year, which are distributed much in the manner of the mayors Daley in Chicago in years past. FIFA's equivalent of the Daleys is Sepp Blatter, the 79 year-old Swiss man known, among other things, for suggesting that the best way of improving the popularity of womens' soccer was to have them play in shorter shorts. But despite a manner that antagonized some, Blatter was able to secure the loyalty of many smaller countries around the world by generous donations to their national soccer programs. Since FIFA operates under a one country-one vote system, Blatter's position was secure.
Until it wasn't. The unravelling of FIFA "began by happenstance," said Shearer, when the IRS found that FIFA's main guy in the US, Chuck Blazer, was not paying all his taxes. As they began to investigate Blazer, much more dirt began to come out about payments to and from FIFA. Finally Blazer was persuaded to cooperate with New York prosecutors - who included the current US Attorney General Loretta Lynch - and for 18 months Blazer became an informant, wearing a wire to FIFA meetings and gathering evidence implicating top officials in some $150 million of bribes. This led to the indictment of 14 top FIFA officials and accomplices and the raid on the exclusive Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich on May 27th, when "the concierge called some of his guests and said they were about to be arrested in their rooms by the police, and would they please open their doors or the doors would be kicked down," said Shearer. "The hotel really didn't want the doors to be kicked down."
Terry McCarthy, President of the Council (left), Derek Shearer, Professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College (right)
Shearer pointed to the comedic side of the scandal, highlighting the on-air feud between Jack Warner, the Trinidad official who is one of the indicted FIFA officials, and comedian John Oliver on his show Last Week Tonight - Oliver's hilarious flaming of Warner is here.
The lack of transparency in FIFA's finances "is a bad thing for the global sport," said Shearer, and the legal campaign to expose abuses has earned the US considerable kudos around the world - "it has been good for US soft power." Reform proposals include splitting FIFA into a two-tier structure with a non-profit arm that runs the sport and a for-profit arm that handles the television rights and sponsorship contracts. There have also been suggestions, said Shearer, that the one-country-one-vote system be weighted to give more power to larger countries with more at stake in the sport. Today the tiny Caribbean nation of Montserrat, population 5,200, has an equal voice to that of Brazil's 200 million citizens. If FIFA does not reform now, "the big sponsors like Visa, Nike and Bank of America will be inclined to take their money out of the World Cup."
One of the uncertainties now hanging over world soccer is the fate of the next two World Cups, which were given to Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022) in a joint award that has been heavily criticized. Shearer said it was unlikely the World Cup would be taken away from Russia, being just three years away and because Russia has a substantial soccer infrastructure. "But the case of Qatar is more troublesome." The heat make it unsuitable for a summer competition, and there has been much negative press coverage of how the migrant workers who have been building the soccer stadia have been treated. But "sports diplomacy is very important for Qatar - they bought (French soccer club) Paris St Germain, and they have sponsored (Spanish club) Barcelona."
Whatever happens to the future World Cups, one thing is certain, said Shearer - greater oversight of FIFA from Switzerland - a country that prides itself on being a center of world banking and the place where FIFA is headquartered. "The Swiss government will pay much closer attention to what happens to the money." Clearly the Swiss will not want to be "shocked" to find examples of financial malfeasance right under their noses.