Doubtless, there will be some soccer fans who, this morning, are grimacing at the news that fourteen top officials of FIFA, the sport's world governing body, have been indicted on corruption charges brought against them by, of all countries, the United States. I am not one of them.
Americans are widely mocked for referring to the game that everyone else calls football as "sawker." But that cultural anomaly aside, it is thanks to American efforts that soccer, dogged for years by allegations of corruption and bribery, just may be on the cusp of recovering its integrity.
A mere two days before FIFA is due to begin its 2015 Congress in Switzerland, plainclothes Swiss police swooped upon the five star Baur au Lac hotel near Zurich, where they arrested seven of the fourteen indictees, who will now be extradited to the United States on federal corruption charges. A few hours after those arrests were carried out, the Swiss authorities seized computers and electronic data from FIFA's headquarters.
American involvement in stamping out corruption in FIFA's corridors stems from the 350-page report compiled by Michael J. Garcia, the former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which exposed astonishing levels of corruption in the bidding process that resulted in Russia and Qatar winning the hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively. Garcia spent almost two years on the investigation, but the publication of his conclusions was suppressed by FIFA in October last year. It's safe to assume that Garcia – who, by all accounts, has no interest in soccer as a sport – is having the last laugh today.
Garcia's report pointed out that many of the bribery transactions were allegedly carried out on American soil, thereby enabling U.S. jurisdiction over the case. According to a statement released by the Swiss Office of Justice, "these crimes were agreed and prepared in the U.S., and payments were carried out via U.S. banks." Among the seven officials who will stand trial in an American courtroom is the former FIFA Vice-President Jack Warner, a particularly nasty anti-Semite who put the blame on "Zionism" when he was compelled to resign from his post in 2011, shortly before Garcia began his investigation.
Indeed, until today's news broke, "Zionism" was poised to become the main item on the FIFA Congress agenda, due to the attempt by Jibril Rajoub, a convicted Fatah terrorist who heads the Palestine Football Association, to have Israel suspended from FIFA. As the Israeli legal NGO Shurat HaDin pointed out in a letter to FIFA, among Rajoub's many inflammatory statements was his declaration that if the Palestinians "had nuclear weapons, we'd be using them" against Israel.
Rajoub's initiative – formally predicated on the accusation that Israel has prevented Palestinian soccer players from participating in international matches on security grounds – is more properly understood as an element of the wider Palestinian strategy to isolate Israel in international bodies ranging from the UN to FIFA. As my colleague, Aiden Pink, observes in an article for The Tower magazine, Rajoub's gambit,
...is another facet of the Palestinian Authority's escalating efforts to isolate and delegitimize Israel in bodies like the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court—politicizing organizations that could theoretically serve a noble purpose if they weren't so consumed with anti-Israel animus. One of FIFA's only saving graces over the past few years has been that it has done a decent job at staying neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while successfully working to develop soccer in both countries: In the last two years, FIFA has invested $4.5 million in infrastructure and stadium upgrades in the West Bank, and selected Israel to host the Men's Under-21 and Women's Under-19 European Championships. Approving the Palestinian proposal would mean that, like a brilliant goal-scoring run called offside, it was all a lot of effort with nothing to show for it.
While there was always doubt over whether Rajoub would succeed in his quest, today's arrests at FIFA, coupled with the news that UEFA, the powerful European section of FIFA, will oppose the Palestinian proposal, should hopefully mean that Israel is in the clear. I say "hopefully" because one should always be careful when it comes to predictions over FIFA's behavior, but the portents for Israel now look much more positive than they did earlier this week.
The aim now should be to demand that FIFA revoke both Russia's and Qatar's hosting rights for the next two World Cups. FIFA has already stated rather weakly that it has ruled out such an outcome, but the organization's President Sepp Blatter – a dictatorial figure currently seeking a fifth term at FIFA's helm – is likely to face unprecedented pressure to revise that decision.
For all its talk of "respect" and "equality," soccer, and sport more generally, has never been wary of cozying up to the world's most repugnant regimes. The Nazis hosted the Olympics in Berlin in 1936, and the Soviet Union and China were given the same honor in 1980 and 2008. In 1978, the World Cup was hosted by Argentina when that country was in the grip of a horrendous military dictatorship. Awarding Vladimir Putin the World Cup despite his invasion of Ukraine, and extending the same privilege to Qatar, which uses slave labor to build soccer stadiums, is therefore simply more of the same. But because of the tenacious efforts of American law enforcement officials, the writing is, at long last, on the wall.