The body that governs soccer, the most popular sport in the world, is a multibillion dollar behemoth.
Great power, yes. Great responsibility? Not so much, critics say.
FIFA has been regularly accused of bribery and kickbacks, allegations that reached fever pitch after it awarded Russia and Qatar the World Cup in 2018 and 2022, respectively.
In the aftermath, the group carried out its own internal investigation and cleared itself.
So why is the United States, a country where soccer ranks far below football and basketball in popularity, now taking top FIFA officials to court?
In order to understand that, we’ll have to take you through a journey that, as you’ll see, involves Americans at all stages.
First up …
The World Cup is a big deal. It comes around every four years and when it does, it’s the biggest sporting spectacle on the planet. It’s a financial windfall for any country that wins the rights to host it. Think of all those tourism dollars. So nations go for it with a ferocious intensity.
But when FIFA awarded the 2018 games to Russia and followed that with the even more head-scratching choice of Qatar in 2022, critics and other governments cried foul. They smelled shenanigans. They wanted a transparent account of the bidding process to see if Qatar and Russia cut any corners.
FIFA brought in Michael Garcia, a one-time U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. He was tasked to look into the behavior of the two nations.
The man spent 19 months scrutinizing the bids to host the two tournaments.
By the time he was done, his findings stretched to 350 pages.
So what did FIFA do?
It suppressed the report, released a puny 42-page summary — and cleared itself of any wrongdoing in November.
Garcia hit back. He labeled FIFA’s findings on his report “incomplete and erroneous.”
James Comey and Loretta Lynch:
As we mentioned earlier, Garcia is a former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. The guy who held that job before him? James Comey.
He’s the current FBI director. And the developments today are a result of a three-year FBI investigation.
Then there’s the second New York connection: Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
She oversaw the case in Brooklyn before she was appointed to lead the Justice Department.
But why did U.S. authorities start looking into FIFA to begin with?
When FIFA cleared itself of wrong doing, the FBI wasn’t ready to do the same.
It wanted to know whether any of the allegations of bribe-taking and kickbacks by FIFA officials took place on American soil.
And it knew it was on the right track, especially after it secured the cooperation of a former top FIFA official — and an American — named Chuck Blazer.
Blazer had found himself in a bind. He allegedly hadn’t paid his taxes for many, many years and was looking at serious prison time. So he became an informant, who provided documents and recordings of meetings with FIFA colleagues that hinted at not-so-kosher dealings, law enforcement officials said.
But still, why would the U.S. care?
That brings us to another name …
The U.S. is part of CONCACAF, the FIFA-affiliated governing body for North America and the Caribbean.
Blazer was the no. 2 man there. And with him as a cooperating witness, American officials set out to see whether corruption touched tournaments held in the Americas.
Turns out, it did.
One of the people facing charges now is Jeffrey Webb. He’s the FIFA vice president, and he also heads CONCACAF.
We won’t know what the exact charges against Webb are until the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI unseal the indictment later Wednesday.
But the Swiss Federal Office of Justice said that those arrested are accused of accepting bribes and kickbacks totaling more than $100 million, from the early 1990s until now.
In return, they provided media, marketing and sponsorship rights to soccer matches in the Americas, the Swiss Office of Justice said.
But can the U.S. actually go after FIFA officials?
Yes. Because it is …
The United States of America:
The reason why the United States brought charges against the suspects is because the plots were allegedly hatched on American soil.
“According to U.S. request, these crimes were agreed and prepared in the U.S., and payments were carried out via U.S. banks,” the Swiss Office of Justice said.
Prosecutors also believe the broad reach of U.S. tax and banking regulations aid their ability to bring the charges.
In addition, U.S. authorities claim jurisdiction because the American television market, and billions paid by U.S. networks, is the largest for the World Cup.