A topic that has long absorbed followers of the game here in Britain and internationally has been that football—that is, soccer—never looked like taking wing fully in the United States. A concurrent and analogous fascination is more of a “what-if” matter; what if it were to become really mainstream and take its place fully as a national U.S. sport, attracting the same level of interest and support as baseball, basketball, ice-hockey and what we know over here as American football?
To the second question, there is usually already a built-in answer; most people think that what would happen is, in a word, supremacy. Such is the size, so runs this line of thought, of the U.S. economy and of its population, and its prowess in so many other sports that US football—again, soccer—would dominate. But this still hasn’t happened, despite attempts to plant the game such as the 1994 World Cup and even as that tournament set an average spectator attendance record that stands to this day, of almost 69,000 per match. Football is the biggest game in the world on all sorts of measures and is greatly popular among U.S. kids and families, and among particular ethnic groups. But it does not look like rivalling the U.S. “big four” any time soon.
Thus there was a particular irony that it was U.S. law-enforcement agencies that led the early-morning swoop on senior officials of FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, waking up in their five-star hotel, having gathered for their annual conference in Zurich, Switzerland. So far, 14 have been arrested—officials, former officials and business associates, including two FIFA vice-presidents.
The day began with this extraordinary news, breaking on American channels and astonishing British morning news-radio audiences; at the other end of the day, the flagship BBC 10 pm evening TV news led with the FIFA story, relegating even the showpiece State Opening of Parliament, with all its pomp and circumstance, to the runners-up spot.
Cited in the London press, Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney-general, said the FIFA officials had allegedly run a “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted” scheme to “acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.” Richard Weber, the chief investigator of the IRS criminal investigations unit, added that “[this was] really the World Cup of fraud and today we are issuing FIFA a red card.” FBI chief James Comey stated that the game had been “hijacked by corruption.” One British red-top put it thus: “at 6am yesterday, football’s gravy-train ran off the rails.” There has long been no shortage of voices to express, perhaps in a whisper, that the administration and marketing of the game is corrupt. The feeling among fans has always been that the shadier side existed but was not likely to be, so to speak, tackled. Now it has; the whistle has blown.
It is precisely the huge and still-growing appeal of the world sport that attracts the greed. Every four years, a different country hosts the World Cup tournament. Thirty-one national teams emerge from a global qualifying process to participate; the host nation qualifies automatically. It’s lucrative to qualify; even more so to host the jamboree. Allegations about corruption in the award have persisted, as they have for Russia in 2018 and even South Africa in 2010. The bidding process, the marketing opportunities and the potential rewards are more attractive than those of the Olympics. The sale of broadcasting, marketing and merchandising rights, now extending to new money-spinning video-games, are a licence to print cash. Corruption in this case, it is alleged, involves selling those rights to a marketing company, then to a merchandiser; there are kickbacks to get and to maintain that contract. National and international associations are sitting on massive sources of potential profits; middlemen are involved who seal the deals but also, it is alleged, see to the kickbacks. FIFA—the “Fédération Internationale de Football Association”—runs the show. There’s a further irony, there for all to see, in the FIFA logo’s strapline—“for the good of the game.”
Huge sponsors have flocked to football, especially to the World Cup. Now one, Visa, has broken cover and, speaking of their “profound" concern, declared that their continuing support is precarious, calling for swift corrective action. Others will surely follow. The European equivalent body, UEFA (Union of European Football Associations), which itself runs the cash-rich Champions League for club sides, has moved quickly to distance itself from the world body. The Swiss President of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, one of the world’s great survivors, who stands accused of presiding over a corrupt organization, is now under intense pressure and may yet be forced to drop his bid for re-election, for a fifth term, scheduled for Friday of this week.
Regrettably, little comment has passed on a tragic and human dimension of the World Cup story. Huge controversy verging on disbelief surrounded the award of the 2022 World Cup to the desert state of Qatar. Unsafe working conditions have already caused the deaths of hundreds of non-Qatari workers, mostly poor migrants from South Asia, in the construction of the 2022 World Cup's stadiums. Earlier in 2015 four BBC journalists were arrested and held for days while investigating allegations of poor working environments. It is surely to be hoped that what is emerging now will lead to a greater awareness of this human tragedy, which activists have described as nothing less than modern slavery.
Here in London, one of football’s greatest and most venerable rituals happens this weekend—the F.A. (Football Association) Cup Final, always a great occasion and spectacle in the spring sunshine at Wembley Stadium. Will the showpiece feel tarnished? In allegedly stealing from the fans, who pay for all this by buying costly game tickets, satellite-TV packages and merchandise, the accused have, if found guilty, stolen something of the heart of what Pele famously called “the beautiful game.”
David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.