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FIFA's huge corruption and bribery scandal, explained

FIFA president Sepp Blatter resigns on June 2.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter resigns on June 2.
(VALERIANO DI DOMENICO/AFP/Getty Images)
  1. Last week, the US Department of Justice arrested seven officials from FIFA, the governing body of international soccer.  Hours later, Swiss officials opened a parallel investigation concerning the bidding process for the 2018 Russia World Cup and the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
  2. In the first investigation, the US Department of Justice alleges that sports marketing executives allegedly paid more than $150 million in bribes to FIFA officials to secure broadcast rights. Nine soccer officials and five sports executives were indicted.
  3. Acting as an informant, former FIFA official Chuck Blazer admitted to taking bribes in exchange for awarding the 1998 World Cup to France and the 2010 World Cup to South Africa.
  4. In the second investigation, Swiss authorities are investigating bribery during the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
  5. In response, embattled longtime FIFA president Sepp Blatter abruptly announced his resignation.

1) The US is investigating bribes relating to broadcast rights — but found evidence of World Cup bid bribes too

FIFA officials are arrested on Wednesday in Zurich. (AP)

The DOJ charges mainly concern the allocation of soccer broadcast rights in the Western Hemisphere. Investigators charge that officials from FIFA and CONCACAF (FIFA's governing body for Central and North America) solicited and accepted bribes from sports marketing executives in exchange for broadcast rights to the World Cup and other tournaments, which they then sold to broadcasters.

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

These executives — from South, Central, and North America —allegedly paid more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to FIFA officials. As Vox's Amanda Taub puts it, "FIFA officials treated their positions like toll booths, extracting bribes from marketing organizations that needed their signatures or cooperation."

However, during the investigation, the DOJ has uncovered evidence of other sorts of bribery. In particular, while pleading guilty and acting as an informant, former FIFA executive Chuck Blazer admitted to soliciting and accepting bribes during the process of awarding the 1998 World Cup to France and the 2010 World Cup to South Africa.

2) The Russia and Qatar World Cups' bidding processes are also being investigated

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A rendering of one of the World Cup stadiums to be built in Qatar. (Qatar 2022 via Getty Images)

A few hours after the DOJ-requested arrests, the Swiss Office of the Attorney General opened its own criminal investigation of FIFA "on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and of money laundering in connection with the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 Football World Cups."

These World Cups were awarded to Russia and Qatar, respectively, after a vote by FIFA's executive committee — which Blazer was still serving on — in 2010. But the process was surrounded by accusations of corruption, with officials from other countries reporting they'd been asked for millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for votes.

Swiss officials are now interviewing 10 FIFA executive committee members who were part of the bidding process back in 2010, and have seized some banking records and other files. Blazer's admission of bribery during previous bidding processes makes it seem even more likely they'll find new evidence.

3) FIFA president Sepp Blatter surprisingly resigned

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Sepp Blatter announces his resignation on June 2. (VALERIANO DI DOMENICO/AFP/Getty Images)

In response to the two investigations and the increasing level of public criticism, longtime president Sepp Blatter abruptly resigned as president just days after winning re-election to a fifth term.

Blatter wasn't charged in either election, but over the years, he's been the subject of many allegations of corruption, ranging from vote-buying to using FIFA "development money" — paid to promote soccer in poor nations — as a tool to ensure support in reelections, with money enriching soccer officials instead of building fields.

Blatter admitted no wrongdoing in his resignation speech, merely acknowledging his critics' charges that he's not the right leader for FIFA as it tries to reform. However, the US investigation has reportedly turned up evidence that Jérôme Valcke — FIFA's secretary general and Blatter's top deputy — made wire transfers involving $10 million in bribe money. It's possible this investigation could soon ensnare Blatter himself.

4) FIFA has a long history of corruption

The biggest surprise in all this isn't that FIFA officials allegedly engaged in this sort of corruption — it's that after years of widespread accusations, the US and Swiss governments are finally cracking down.

The allegations largely began during the tenure of previous FIFA president João Havelange, who enlisted the World Cup's first corporate sponsors, expanded the number of teams, and dramatically increased FIFA revenues from it after taking over in 1974. During the same period, Havelange took millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for World Cup marketing and broadcast rights. Current FIFA president Sepp Blatter allegedly knew about these bribes and attempted to cover them up upon taking office.

More recently, the decision to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar led to widespread accusations of vote buying. Two members of the executive committee were actually suspended before the vote due to the allegations, and afterward, the leader of England's bid reported that he'd been asked for millions of dollars and other bribes in exchange for votes.

FIFA opened its own investigation into the bidding process in 2012, but never published the full results. Michael Garcia, the former US attorney who led it, said the public summary — which largely exculpated FIFA — was inaccurate, and subsequently resigned..

5) FIFA essentially operates with impunity

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Sepp Blatter announces that Qatar has won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup. (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

The fundamental problem isn't Blatter, Havelange, or any other specific FIFA official. It's the fact that FIFA falls within a legal gray area: it's not a business, not a governmental organization, and not a conventional NGO.

As sports governance expert Roger Pilke Jr. recently told Vox:

It's basically a members' club. It's like if you and I started up a bowling league in our hometown — we got together and decided to govern ourselves. But it's a members' club that's hit the big time. Nobody really cares what we do with our bowling league or if we run it like dictators. But FIFA has gotten to the point where, in terms of scale, it has characteristics of a governmental organization or a big business.

We have rules for how those organizations are supposed to behave. The fact that FIFA has gotten so big without any of those same rules is really what's led to its corruption.

This new round of arrests occurred partly because it conducted business on US soil, and because it violated anti-corruption laws in Switzerland, where it's headquartered. But in theory, Pilke points out, FIFA could easily uproot and move to Qatar, which has less oversight and no extradition treaty with the US.

6) John Oliver sums all this up quite nicely

All this is a lot to take in, especially for American readers who might not closely follow soccer. Luckily, this John Oliver clip from 2014 nicely outlines FIFA's many scandals and problems:

7) It's unclear what will happen next

Blatter's surprise Tuesday resignation changes things considerably, and could lead to more substantive change within FIFA. He also announced a few specific reforms aimed at curbing corruption — like term limits and integrity checks for all future FIFA executive committee members.

But he's made such promises many times before, while FIFA's culture of corruption has persisted. More profound reforms — such as increased oversight, perhaps from world governmental organizations — are needed to change things long-term.

Meanwhile, FIFA has so far refused to reconsider who will host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups — despite the allegations of vote buying, the deaths of migrant laborers building stadiums in Qatar, and the scheduling difficulties posed by shifting the event to the winter to avoid the country's scorching heat. If the investigations turn up direct evidence of bribery during the bidding process, though, FIFA could be forced to reconsider.

Finally, it's possible that the parallel criminal investigations will ensnare more FIFA officials — perhaps including Blatter. During a press conference last week, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch promised that the 14 indictments were "only the beginning" of the DOJ's investigation into FIFA's corruption.