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The (Latest) Global Soccer Scandal, Explained

The only thing we can count on is that FIFA will continue to blunder along, stepping from one pile of shit right into another.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Are you confused by the current FIFA scandal? That's okay! They do all start to run together after a while. But this particular FIFA scandal—the one about the internal ethics investigation, the report on the internal ethics investigation, and the whistleblowers—is important. Some people involved fear for their lives. The FBI is investigating. Two World Cups are at stake. Some officials in Europe are so angry they're talking about boycotting the World Cup and/or leaving FIFA altogether. It's time you catch up.


How did this all begin?

It started back in 2010, when FIFA selected Russia and Qatar to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively. The selection process, which consisted of a series of votes undertaken by the FIFA Executive Committee, is alleged to have involved lots of bribing and vote trading. Bill Clinton, who was on the USA 2022 bid committee, was so pissed after the winners were announced that he went back to his Zurich hotel and trashed the place.

Did anybody get busted?

Before the selection, England's Sunday Times published a report that led to the suspension of two Executive Committee members who tried to sell their votes. Members of a joint 2018 bid from Spain and Portugal also apparently swapped votes with the Qatar 2022 bid. FIFA president Sepp Blatter brushed that off, however, saying the vote swap "was a nonsense. It was there but it didn't work, not for one and not for the other side."

The Sunday Times claims to be in possession of a mountain of evidence that proves the 2022 World Cup selection was a fraud, but no matter: as of now, the tournaments will proceed as planned.

What sort of evidence?

Mohamed bin Hammam, the main figure behind the Qatar World Cup, is said to have paid millions to Executive Committee members in exchange for votes. Once one of the most powerful people in FIFA, he has since been banned from the organization for life—twice. (Well, technically he resigned before the second ban, but still.) FIFA first banned bin Hammam in 2011, after he bribed people in an attempt to win the FIFA presidency. The Court of Arbitration for Sport later overturned that ruling. In 2012, he resigned after FIFA's internal ethics investigator, Michael Garcia, found evidence that he had violated FIFA's code of ethics when he was the president of the Asian Football Federation.

What's with these internal investigations?

Because of all the bad press, FIFA decided to create a more powerful ethics watchdog group, which it hired Garcia to oversee. Garcia, a former US Attorney from New York, had a good track record with major investigations in the United States. He started investigating the FIFA bids in the summer of 2012 and filed his complete report last September.

Great! What did it say?

Well, we don't really know. Another member of the FIFA ethics body, Hans-Joachim Eckert, a German judge, declined to release the full report. Because many of Garcia's sources spoke to him only with guarantees of anonymity, Eckert argued it would be unethical to publish the report in its entirety. Instead, earlier this month, Eckert published a report on the report.

This is getting ridiculous.

Just wait. Eckert's report completely cleared the Qatari and Russian bid committees of any wrongdoing. It also outed two whistleblowers—the very people Eckert's report was designed to protect.

Who are they?

They're both women: Phaedra Al-Majid, a Qatari who worked on the 2022 bid, and Bonita Mersiades, an Australian executive on that country's 2022 bid. Both women are furious over being outed and have filed complaints with FIFA. Phaedra Al-Majid says she fears for her safety. Both say Eckert's report is a farce.

What about Garcia?

Garcia said Eckert's report contained "misrepresentations" and the two met to clear the air last Thursday. Garcia was going to appeal Eckert's ruling but seems to have calmed down after their meeting. They released a joint statement, which says "formal cases against individuals" in FIFA have already been opened. Beyond that, it says a lot about how important ethics are at FIFA.

That doesn't sound too promising.

Nope. But, assuming lots of money changed hands, it's also likely some actual laws were broken. Last week, CNN reported that "[FBI] Investigators are moving ahead with their [three-year-old] probe, which could result in charges against senior FIFA officials." FIFA has also handed over unknown evidence to Swiss investigators.

Beyond that, there has been a bit of saber rattling from officials in Germany and England, who have suggested that UEFA could leave FIFA or that countries could boycott the World Cup. While both ideas are exciting—fight the power!—they would need more than just two countries to work, and neither idea appears to have that kind of support yet. World Cup sponsors, too, haven't yet flexed real muscle, although they may eventually.

There's obviously no guarantee anything will happen that results in the stripping of either World Cup or widespread reform inside FIFA. The only thing we can count on is that FIFA will continue to blunder along, stepping from one pile of shit right into another.

"In other words," wrote Bonita Mersiades in her response to FIFA after Eckart outed her, "pull up a chair, take out the popcorn and see what happens next."