clock menu more-arrow no yes

Let's count all the ways FIFA is corrupt

The FBI raids CONCACAF's offices in Miami Beach on Wednesday.
The FBI raids CONCACAF's offices in Miami Beach on Wednesday.
Joe Skipper/Getty Images

The most surprising thing about FIFA president Sepp Blatter's resignation is that a FIFA president was actually brought down by corruption.

Blatter's resignation stemmed from charges US prosecutors filed against FIFA leaders, alleging that officials took bribes for broadcast rights. Swiss prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2022 World Cup.

But the scandals surrounding the 111-year-old organization are much broader than that. Since the 1970s, FIFA leaders have been accused of enabling dictators, turning a blind eye to human rights, using the organization's money to shore up their own support, and buying elections.

The individual scandals, on their own, are big — big enough to bring down Blatter. Together, they suggest the problem isn't individual officials in FIFA, but the organization itself — its structure, its culture, and its role in the world's most popular sport.

As comedian John Oliver said — and remember, he's British, meaning he comes from a country that actually cares about soccer, and thus about FIFA — "FIFA is a comically grotesque organization."

What's gone wrong at FIFA mostly begins with João Havelange, the Brazilian who led FIFA from 1974 to 1998. He was elected after he promised World Cup representation and financial resources to developing countries in Asia and Africa, creating the modern FIFA. Havelange helped the organization build its international reach — but his reign is also when many of the allegations of corruption and scandal took root.

1) FIFA's disregard for human rights goes back to the 1970s

Argentinian police beat soccer fans who lined up for tickets to the 1978 World Cup because they weren't being orderly enough.

Daniel Garcia/AFP via Getty Images

Chile qualified for the 1974 World Cup in a game that was, in every sense of the word, a sham: there was no other team on the field.

Chile was supposed to play the Soviet Union in 1973. This was two months after the Chilean military toppled the nation's president, Salvador Allende, a Marxist who had nationalized the nation's industries. Chile's national stadium became a detention center for thousands of political prisoners.

The Soviet team asked for the game to be moved to another location, which FIFA had done before, when a game was scheduled to be played in Northern Ireland during a particularly volatile moment. And it's possible the Soviets' resistance was less than principled; one team member later said they were just afraid they'd lose. Either way, FIFA president Stanley Rouse denied the request. Instead, he sent officials to Santiago to inspect the stadium. During the visit, the detainees were kept quiet at gunpoint in the locker rooms underneath the field, one later told PRI. FIFA said the match could go forward, and the Soviet team refused to play.

So the Chileans played on an empty field. And won, of course. Here's footage of a "goal":

A similar scenario played out four years later, in Argentina, after Havelange took over FIFA's leadership. The military dictatorship, which had taken power two years before, was carrying out its "dirty war" of kidnappings and torture. There were calls to boycott the 1978 World Cup, but the tournament went ahead, with a ubiquitous, chilling government slogan that was basically a dark pun about human rights: "We Argentines are right and human."

Argentina won that World Cup, possibly by rigging a crucial game. "At the exact moment the fourth goal went into the net, a bomb exploded in the home of a government minister who'd criticized the expenditures of the general in charge of the tournament," ESPN's Wright Thompson wrote in 2014 in a feature on the 1978 World Cup. "Many think the dictators bought the World Cup in the same manner, and with the same intent, that they'd buy a tank."

The 1978 World Cup has been compared to the 1936 Olympics, which Nazi Germany used to glorify its own regime. But FIFA, which has said that democracy makes it harder to hold a World Cup, doesn't see it that way

"I was happy Argentina won," Blatter said in 2013. "This was a kind of reconciliation of the public, of the people of Argentina, with the system, the political system, the military system at the time."

2) The father of modern FIFA took millions of dollars in bribes

João Havelange in 2011.

(Buda Mendes/LatinContent via Getty Images)

In 2012, a Swiss prosecutor found that while Havelange was in office, he and Richard Teixeira — a member of FIFA's powerful executive committee who was once married to Havelange's daughter — took as much as $23 million in bribes from a marketing company between 1992 and 2000. In exchange, the marketing company got to buy and sell broadcast rights to the World Cup.

Marketing was at the core of Havelange's presidency. "The key to the growth of both the Olympics and soccer is the golden triangle of sports-television-sponsorship," Rob Hughes wrote in the New York Times in 2011, as Havelange began to fall. "Havelange saw it ahead of time, and he showed sports administrators how to sell their products to the tune of billions for every show they put on."

Most of the World Cup revenue comes from the enormous amounts paid for broadcasting and marketing rights, and that amount has been steadily rising. The indictments in the most recent bribery scandal are also related to bribes and kickbacks that sports marketing companies paid to FIFA officials.

At the time of the prosecutor's report, taking commercial bribes wasn't a crime in Switzerland. Still, Havelange, who remained honorary president for life at FIFA, had to resign the post.

3) FIFA's current president was embroiled in scandal from the moment he was elected

FIFA Executive Committee Meeting

FIFA president Sepp Blatter in March.

(Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)

Sepp Blatter was Havelange's former right-hand man, and FIFA elected him president in 1998. Allegations of corruption have dogged him ever since. A 2002 book, How They Stole the Game, alleged that Blatter bought votes with envelopes of cash in order to engineer a victory over Lennart Johansson, who had said FIFA should be more transparent and accountable. (Johansson is still angry about the result.)

FIFA elections are done by secret ballot, but countries tend to vote in geographic blocs. Before the election, Johansson, who is from Sweden, believed he had support from Europe and Africa, while Blatter had support from Asia and the Americas. Blatter allegedly paid $50,000 to African countries to vote in his favor.

Blatter doesn't deny that money changed hands, but said it was an advance on development money that the countries were supposed to get anyway as part of their World Cup revenue share.

The 1998 election illustrates a dynamic within FIFA that began when Havelange, a Brazilian, ousted European leadership in 1974: Havelange and, later, Blatter have been supporters of soccer in the developing world, and those countries have rewarded them with loyalty.

Stanley Rouse, Havelange's predecessor, was "not notably corrupt, only racist and Eurocentric," Grantland's Brian Phillips wrote in 2011. Before Havelange's election, FIFA had only one World Cup spot for both Asia and Africa combined. Havelange made the organization more welcoming to developing countries, establishing a base of support outside Europe for his leadership.

That base has endured. When Blatter was up for reelection in 2002, he promised the next World Cup to Africa, a promise that was fulfilled in 2010, when South Africa hosted the event.

"His actions in favor of Africa speak for him," Confederation of African Football president Issa Hayatou said in April, after dozens of allegations of FIFA corruption. "To us, he is still the man of the moment. Dear Sepp, Africa is comfortable having you. Africa stays with you!"

4) Brazil's incredibly costly World Cup underlined that it's a better deal for FIFA than for the home country

Activists Protest Transport Fees Before World Cup Match In Sao Paulo

A 2014 protest in Brazil for free transportation and against overspending on the World Cup.

Victor Moriyama/Getty Images

The dark side of Blatter's commitment to expanding soccer in developing countries is that the past two World Cups have been held in countries with high levels of poverty — and the country, not FIFA, is expected to pay for it.

South Africa spent nearly $4 billion on the 2010 World Cup, about $13,000 for every tourist. Brazil spent far more in 2014: $15 billion, including $3 billion for stadiums. Although the Brazilian president pledged no public money would be used, the government ended up paying 90 percent of the bill.

Many Brazilians think it was a waste of money. In a Pew Research Center poll weeks before the World Cup, nearly two-thirds of Brazilians said hosting the World Cup was a bad thing because it took money away from public services. In protests leading up to the World Cup, protestors argued that if Brazil could afford international-quality stadiums, it could afford better education and transportation.

By the time the games started, the protests had largely faded. Still, when FIFA made $4 billion off the Brazil World Cup, it illustrated to critics that hosting a World Cup benefits FIFA, and it benefits the organizers who are likely to profit, but it doesn't necessarily benefit the host country at all.

5) A power broker for soccer in the Western Hemisphere has had an astonishing number of scandals

FIFA World Cup 2018 & 2022 Host Countries Announced

Jack Warner (L), then the FIFA vice president, during the announcement that Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup.

Michael Regan/Getty Images

The scandals plaguing FIFA's top leadership aren't just limited to Havelange and Blatter. Jack Warner, the former president of CONCACAF — the North American, Central American, and Caribbean soccer region — has a dizzying suite of scandals all his own. He resigned in 2011, accused of bribing officials to vote against Blatter in a FIFA presidential election.

Warner also allegedly asked for favors in exchange for votes for World Cup sites: $4 million for an education center in Trinidad in exchange for a vote for the UK's unsuccessful bid for the 2018 World Cup, for example. There was also a scandal in 2006, in which a travel agency owned by Warner's family controlled and marked up World Cup tickets for Trinidad and Tobago, Warner's home country, as well as England, Mexico, and Japan. And there was a long legal case about unpaid bonuses from the 2006 World Cup.

Trinidad's attorney general issued a warrant for Warner's arrest on Wednesday.

6) Qatar allegedly bought the 2022 World Cup — and it's killing thousands of people to get ready

Hosting a World Cup in Qatar seems like an obviously insane thing to do. Let John Oliver explain:

Summer temperatures in Qatar can reach 110 degrees, so the event is being moved to winter for the first time ever. Journalists and critics believe that when Qatar beat out the US, Japan, Australia, and South Korea in the 2010 vote to host the 2022 World Cup, it was because FIFA officials were paid off.

Qatar spent $200 million on its bid, including promises to build soccer training facilities in the home countries of some executive committee members. Last year, the Sunday Times alleged that it also spent more than $5 million bribing officials outright to vote in its favor, based on "millions" of emails the newspaper had seen. Swiss prosecutors are now investigating these bribery allegations.

But this isn't the worst thing about the Qatar World Cup. The stadiums are built by slave labor: migrant workers who are unable to switch jobs, leave the country, or unionize. One report estimates that 4,000 migrant workers in Qatar will die between 2010 and 2022. (While those deaths aren't only in World Cup preparations, for comparison, two people died preparing for South Africa's; 10 died preparing Brazil's.)

Despite the latest arrests, the organization is still insisting that the 2018 and 2022 World Cups will go on as planned.

7) When FIFA has tried to reform, it's ended up burying the evidence

Michael Garcia gives a speech at FIFA in 2014.

(Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

After allegations that Qatar got the World Cup through bribery and corruption, Michael Garcia, a former federal prosecutor who became FIFA's chief investigator, spent two years looking into all the bids for both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Garcia wrote a 430-page report identifying what he later described as "serious and wide-ranging issues" with the selection process.

Instead of publishing the entire report with minor redactions, as Garcia wanted, FIFA published a 42-page summary. The summary included some examples of corruption, but concluded that the process was sound. Garcia said the summary misrepresented his findings: "When viewed in the context of the report it purported to summarize, no principled approach could justify the … edits, omissions, and additions." He quit in protest.

FIFA agreed in December to release a redacted, "legally appropriate" version of the report, but so far that hasn't happened.

This isn't the first time FIFA has nodded at ethical reforms, bringing in an expert to advise them and then censoring what they have to say. Mark Pieth, a Swiss law professor, chaired a committee on reforming FIFA from 2011 to 2013. After his final report was released, he mostly praised Blatter.

But the Guardian reported in February that FIFA officials called for changes to make the report more friendly to Blatter, such as deleting a phrase that said a culture change at FIFA needed to start "at the top." "Do you mean to say Fifa needs a new leader?" the director of legal affairs wrote in response.

The final version didn't include the offending phrase.

8) A challenger to Blatter tried to buy the FIFA election in 2011

AFC Champions League Launch

Mohamed bin Hammam during his presidency of the Asian Football Conference.

(Stanley Chou/Getty Images)

After Qatar won the World Cup, Qatar's Mohamed bin Hammam — then the president of the Asian Football Confederation, a member of FIFA's executive committee, and a linchpin of Qatar's World Cup bid — decided to challenge Blatter in the 2011 presidential elections. Bin Hammam had been a key supporter of Blatter in 1998, when Blatter was accused of buying an election.

An ethics committee found bin Hammam tried bribery as well, offering $40,000 in cash to Caribbean officials in exchange for their votes. Whistleblowers said they got $100 bills in brown envelopes after bin Hammam made his case. (This was the corruption that led to Jack Warner's resignation as well.) He was banned for life from FIFA and from soccer.

The cascading scandals and subsequent resignations of the past few years — bin Hammam was the eighth current or former executive committee member to resign in disgrace — makes it seem like FIFA is becoming more scandal-plagued, not less. And Wednesday's indictments offered little support for the idea that FIFA could reform itself. Among those indicted was the current CONCACAF president, who had been discussed as a potential reformer: Jeffrey Webb, from the Cayman Islands.

9) Exhibition matches at the World Cup were fixed

Netherlands v Slovakia: 2010 FIFA World Cup - Round of Sixteen

At least no one tampered with the vuvuzelas.

(Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, at least 15 exhibition matches, and possibly more, were targeted by a match-fixing syndicate, which pays referees to swing the games in one direction or another for betting purposes.

Unlike many of the other scandals, this one didn't originate with FIFA. In fact, a FIFA investigation uncovered the problem, which was detailed in a New York Times story in 2014. But although the FIFA report said South African officials were probably involved, the organization didn't ban anyone in response. The referee at the center of the case said he had never spoken to FIFA.

Despite FIFA's strong rhetoric on match fixing, the organization hasn't done much about it. Perhaps the most striking about the match-fixing scandals was that nobody was really surprised. In other words, FIFA is so corrupt that no one trusts it to competently handle the most basic task — making sure a game's outcome isn't fixed before it even starts.

Correction: This article originally misstated the findings of a report on migrant labor in Qatar. 4,000 people will die between 2010 and 2022, but not only on World Cup projects.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.