The alleged corruption inside FIFA, soccer's global governing body, is ironically tied to the organization's success at fueling the sport's growth in far-flung corners of the world over the past few decades, as it pumped millions of dollars into countries struggling to build their youth programs.
Those same programs are also considered among the victims of that graft.
In a 47-count indictment released Wednesday, U.S. prosecutors described a system of bribes, kickbacks and money laundering connected to the awarding of lucrative broadcast and marketing rights for soccer's biggest international tournaments, the choice of South Africa as the World Cup's 2010 host country, and the 2011 vote for FIFA's presidency. Prosecutors said they'd identified more than $150 million in illegal gifts that could have instead helped provide more soccer fields, training academies and equipment to resource-starved programs in poor countries.
“A lot of these developing countries depend upon, for their youth development programs, grants from FIFA," Acting U.S. Attorney Kelly T. Currie of the Eastern District of New York said. "And the bribe money that comes out of the pot, if you will, for the value of these marketing rights takes money away from soccer fields and soccer balls for kids.”
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The developing world has been key to FIFA's breathtaking expansion, with small, relatively poor countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia being brought into the fold. The result has been a major power shift, with those countries wielding new influence over the votes for FIFA's presidency.
In the 1990s, current FIFA President Sepp Blatter created a program called Goal, which doled out millions in annual grants aimed at the developing countries. Critics have accused FIFA of using Goal, and other financial assistance programs, to secure votes for FIFA's presidency.
"The victim here is good governance. The whole concept of honest global governance."
FIFA has denied that's the case. But Wednesday's indictment outlined a more blatant set of bribes. During the 2011 election, an unnamed candidate delivered money to Jack Warner, the former president of CONCACAF, the governing body for soccer in the Americas, the indictment says. Warner then allegedly distributed the money, in envelopes stuffed with $40,000 in cash, to leaders of member associations, including those from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Blatterm who was not named in the indictment, is up for re-election on Friday; FIFA said the vote will not be postponed.
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Kirk Bowman, who researches the intersection of soccer and global politics at Georgia Tech, said the indictment exposes how the sport's leaders are willing to cross ethical and legal boundaries for a piece of the billions in revenue that FIFA generates in a four-year World Cup cycle.
The losers are the people at the bottom of the food chain, Bowman said.
"There's a tradeoff: for every $100 million paid in kickbacks is $100 million that couldn't go to further support the development of youth soccer," Bowman said.
But it isn't just those underprivileged leagues that suffer, Bowman said. Graft may make it more expensive for people to watch games on television. An argument could even be made that the corruption damaged the United States' ability to transform its lackluster soccer system, he said.
John Hoberman, a historian of international sports at the University of Texas at Austin, said he hoped the corruption charges represented an opportunity to reform a system in which crime and human rights abuses are swept under the rug in the name of healthy athletic competition.
"The victim here is good governance," Hoberman said. "The whole concept of honest global governance."
Peter Alegi, a Michigan State University historian who studies the growth of soccer in Africa, said the indictment makes official many suspicions that date back decades, when FIFA's rapid expansion into the Southern Hemisphere began.
The larger worry, he said, is the future of the sport itself.
"This is a catastrophe for FIFA's standing with soccer fans around the world," Algei said.
Whether many of them abandon the game is another question.