NEW YORK – The only surprise about the arrest of seven FIFA officials in a Swiss hotel in the early morning of May 27 is that it happened at all. Most people assumed that these pampered men in expensive suits, governing the world’s soccer federation, were beyond the reach of the law. Whatever rumors flew or reports were made on bribes, kickbacks, vote-rigging, and other dodgy practices, FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter and his colleagues and associates always seemed to emerge without a scratch.
So far, 14 men, including nine current or former FIFA executives (but not Blatter), have been charged with a range of fraud and corruption offenses in the United States, where prosecutors accuse them, among other things, of pocketing $150 million in bribes and kickbacks. And Swiss federal prosecutors are looking into shady deals behind the decisions to award the World Cup competitions in 2018 and 2022 to Russia and Qatar, respectively.
There is, of course, a long tradition of racketeering in professional sports. American mobsters have had a major interest in boxing, for example. Even the once gentlemanly game of cricket has been tainted by the infiltration of gambling networks and other crooked dealers. FIFA is just the richest, most powerful, most global milk cow of all.
Some have likened FIFA to the Mafia, and Blatter, born in a small Swiss village, has been called “Don Blatterone.” This is not entirely fair. So far as we know, no murder contracts have ever been issued from FIFA’s head office in Zürich. But the organization’s secrecy, its intimidation of the rivals to those who run it, and its reliance on favors, bribes, and called debts do show disturbing parallels to the world of organized crime.