By Marco Rodriguez | Published Dec. 9, 2015
On May 27, Swiss police raided a Zurich hotel and arrested many high-ranking soccer officials. I opened up Twitter that morning and was bombarded with posts and news headlines all stating the same thing: Eduardo Li was among those arrested. While a part of me was in shock and disbelief, the other part of me thought this was now the new norm when it came to professional soccer’s governing body, Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).
Li, the former president of Costa Rica’s soccer federation and FIFA executive committee member, was among seven people who were arrested by police after a US Department of Justice investigation charged them with accepting over $100 million in bribes.
Li’s arrest personally hit home for me on two fronts. Firstly, I am Costa Rican, and the news of a high profile figure from my country being arrested on bribery charges was embarrassing. Secondly, my family and I met Li two years ago after a Costa Rican soccer game, and generally thought well of him. As we made our way out of the stadium that night in Connecticut, we approached one of the stadium entrances that was heavily guarded by security. Immediately the doors swung open and out walked Li with an entourage of people. We called out his name and he approached us and asked what we thought about the game. He answered every fan’s question, signed jerseys and took pictures with everyone who requested one before walking over to his limousine. The exchange was very pleasant and the national soccer team had greatly improved during his presidency, which left many of us optimistic for the future. Therefore, the headlines that Wednesday in May came as a total shock to all of us.
Soccer, or “the beautiful game” as it is sometimes called, has gotten ugly. Take for example, the debacle surrounding a $10 million bribe that a FIFA official accepted in exchange for a vote of support in South Africa’s pursuit to host soccer’s biggest tournament, the FIFA World Cup, back in 2010. Jack Warner, the former president of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), accepted the bribe from the South African government, as well as the country’s soccer federation, in hopes to have him cast a vote for their country as host of the first ever World Cup in Africa. While the government and federation admit that a $10 million payment to Warner was made at a press conference in June of this year, they claimed that the funds were to be used for developing soccer for people of all ages in the Caribbean.
A BBC investigation, however, states otherwise. The investigation reports that payments were made to Warner in 2008 and 2009 and were used as cash withdrawals, credit card and personal loan payments by and for Warner. Warner, who is still incarcerated in Switzerland with Li, now faces extradition to the United States on charges of wire fraud, racketeering, and money laundering during his time as president of CONCACAF.
Often corruption starts at the top. In this case, the top is FIFA President, Joseph Blatter. Blatter has been president of FIFA for 17 years now and has himself been under a lot of scrutiny for his comments and actions throughout the years.
Recently, Blatter has been in the news for a $2 million, conflict of interest, payment he made to fellow executive member Michel Platini in 2011 for his work as Blatter’s adviser from 1998 to 2002. The pressure from inside, and outside, of FIFA led to Blatter temporarily stepping down as the organization’s president.
In 2004, his comments on how to increase the popularity of women’s soccer created a big controversy. “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts.” He also made inappropriate comments about gay soccer fans travelling to Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal, for the 2022 World Cup. “I’d say they [gay fans] should refrain from any sexual activities.”
While he may have temporarily stepped down as president, Blatter’s actions are still under heavy review. An investigation is under way from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to see if any corruption took place under Blatter’s watch for the election of Russia and Qatar as World Cup hosts in 2018 and 2022 respectively.
All of these damaging comments and incidents tarnish the reputation of the sport that I love. It is imperative that FIFA take steps to restore trust in the world’s most popular sport.
A detailed investigation on past, current, and future business actions and decisions must be conducted on every single executive committee member. Those found guilty of FIFA corruption should be fi red immediately and never be allowed back into the organization.
Secondly, soccer federations from around the world need to pressure the multi-million dollar corporations that sponsor FIFA events to reduce or eliminate support until significant changes are made in FIFA. A drop in viewership FIFA could survive, but a significant drop or end in the influx of money that television and marketing companies provide would signal serious trouble for FIFA.
Lastly, soccer federations favoring reform in FIFA must be willing to protest the organization by not sending their teams to participate in FIFA sponsored events. No teams equal no tournament, which I believe would be the clearest way to call for change.
American author Stephen Covey once said about life that, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” In FIFA’s case, the main thing is the integrity of the game and nothing else. Corrupt businessmen and women should not be the center of attention at FIFA, but rather the sport, its fans, and its players should be the ones making headlines. FIFA must be willing to take these kinds of dramatic steps to restore the public trust, and allow “the beautiful game” to regain its beauty.