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Keith Strudler: The Not So Beautiful Game

We’ve heard for a long time that soccer is finally getting big in the US. If nothing else, it seems the United States Department of Justice got the message. They’re into soccer all right, so much that the Feds this morning indicted nine international soccer officials and five American business executives on 47 counts of wire fraud, racketeering, and money laundering, amongst other things. The indictments, announced in a Brooklyn federal court, largely involved officials working for CONCAF, the international governing body for the game in North American and the Caribbean region. CONCAF is of course part of the larger FIFA organization, the entity that oversees the world’s largest and most pervasive sport, and also a group that seen as only slightly less corrupt than the Russian mob. And that may be unfair to the Russian mob.

Essentially, the Feds have accused American companies of bribing soccer officials for favorable sponsorship and media deals at various international events. It’s an affirmation that soccer is a sport that’s bought and sold by unscrupulous individuals spread across the globe, making law enforcement inherently complex and often impossible. In this particular case, it seems the money trail through the United States – which apparently ran around $150 million – made such enforcement a bit easier.

Thanks to the Swiss police, who apparently aren’t always neutral, most of the accused soccer officials have already been arrested. And while they’re at work, the Swiss authorities are also investigating a series of bribes involved with the awarding of the World Cup to Russia and Qatar in 2018 and 2022. They’ve already raided FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich, which probably makes Watergate seem like FAO Schwartz. They’ll have to work to not find corruption.

For the most part, outside of the accused, it seems systems normal for FIFA’s brass. There’s no indication that they’ll consider moving either the 2018 or 2022 Cup, despite thousands of reasons to do just that. And FIFA’s presidential election will continue as planned for Friday, where current chief SeppBlatter will almost assuredly be re-elected. If nothing else, you have to credit FIFA for its unwavering commitment to willful ignorance. Honestly, given everyone’s complicity in years of nefarious governance, it’s probably hard to break the code of silence, or at least sameness that exists around the organization. Despite what seems like a landmark day for the good guys, for FIFA, it might feel like simply a minor setback in what’s clearly a very long game.

Globally, sports fans and soccer participants seem pleased with today’s events, even if it makes international soccer look more foolish than it already does. As it’s been said, the only way to fix soccer is to blow the whole thing up first. That sounds good, but you might want to ask everyone in cycling how that plays out. Raiding hotel rooms to find syringes filled with PED’s may have cleaned up the sport – some – but it also turned off fans, something soccer might do with a full accounting of its operations.  Or as they say, it’s one thing know something, and another to know for sure.

But that aside, this series of events should make something clear: the United States’ impact on soccer will be more than simply on the field. Part of the reason not one, but both of these scandals is unfolding in public, instead of simply being swept under the rug as usual, is because of the vast amount of cash American interests are pouring into the sport. In fact, the US will be a big part of the case against Russia and Qatar because of the new American sponsorship and television dollars going towards the World Cup. While that’s obviously driven by increased fandom in the US, it’s the influence of American corporate capitalism – and a healthy justice system, at least compared to the rest of the world – that’s driving this bus. So, as much the US is a football world – American football that is – it seems that’s less so now than before.

Perhaps that’s simply the ongoing result of globalization, where borders erode and tastes evolve. What could be more global than a US Federal Court in Brooklyn working with the Swiss Police to take down corrupt officials in Costa Rica while American businesses help Swiss authorities uncover corruption around an event in Russia? All that around the world’s sport. I’m not sure if it is in fact the beautiful game, as it’s called. But it’s certainly finally big in the US.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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