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Despite FIFA bribery scandal, soccer's popularity still high in Europe

European soccer fans react with mix of satisfaction and world-weariness to news of FIFA arrests

European soccer fans reacted with a mix of satisfaction and world-weariness to the news Wednesday that top officials of FIFA, the world sport’s governing body, had been indicted on corruption charges.

"I'm delighted this happened. It's been appalling to see people die because FIFA wrongly handed Qatar the World Cup," said John Jennings, a London-based fan of the Tottenham Hotspur club, alluding to reports that numerous migrant workers have died while building tournament venues in the Persian Gulf state.

"But I can't say I'm surprised,” said Jennings, who was in Athens on a business trip. “I've believed there has been corruption under [FIFA chief] Sepp Blatter for a long time."

In a raid early Wednesday, Swiss police and FBI agents lead seven FIFA officials out of a Zurich hotel, where the organization had been holding a meeting. Hours later, acting U.S. Atty. Kelly T. Currie held a news conference announcing the indictment of nine soccer officials and five sports marketing or banking executives, which include charges of bribes exceeding $150 million.

Blatter, who was not arrested, released a statement welcoming the investigations by U.S. and Swiss authorities, which he said “will help to reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken to root out any wrongdoing in football.”

“Such misconduct has no place in football and we will ensure that those who engage in it are put out of the game,” he said.

The 47-count federal indictment describes an elaborate network that allowed FIFA officials to receive illegal payments around the globe in connection with international soccer events.

But the sport’s popularity has remained high in Europe despite previous  corruption scandals. Most fans and even players said the arrests this time would similarly not affect their ardor for the game.

In fact, they noted, it could make them more optimistic for its future.

Gary Lineker, an outspoken commentator and retired England soccer star, tweeted,  "This is extraordinary! FIFA is imploding. The best thing that could possibly happen to the beautiful game." (He also said, "The house of cards is falling," with no reference to Frank Underwood.)

The news played out across European news outlets and became an instant subject of conversation in cafes, pubs and public squares. Commentators, both bar-side and professional, called for more action, such as the revocation of Qatar as a World Cup host country.

A number of those joining in the debate pointed out a column by Argentine soccer great Diego Maradona just a few days ago in which he called FIFA "a playground for the corrupt.”

"Under Sepp Blatter, FIFA has become a disgrace and a painful embarrassment to those of us who care about football deeply," Maradona wrote.

Some in the soccer establishment, however, were less condemnatory.

Arsene Wenger, who manages Britain’s Arsenal club, called the events embarrassing but cautioned against snap judgments, saying, "Sometimes I think now we are too quick to convict people who have not been proven guilty."

Many in Europe were taken aback by the involvement of U.S. law enforcement.

A Maccabi Tel Aviv fan on vacation from Israel said he was still unclear on why the actions had stretched across the Atlantic.

"The part that surprised me was the FBI getting involved,” said the man, who gave his name as Yochanan, who like a number of others, declined to provide a last name because he was criticizing a high-profile institution. “Isn't this in Europe?"

(The FBI says it is investigating suspected licensing and merchandising wrongdoing in the Americas, with a secondary focus on actions elsewhere. Swiss authorities have separately opened an inquiry of the awarding of the World Cup to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022, and have raided FIFA's offices in Zurich.)

Many commentators used the burgeoning scandal as a chance to channel their inner wag.

The spectacle of Zurich hotel workers shielding indicted officials with a bed sheet lent itself to a high degree of mockery online.

"In my culture, this is how the bride enters the marriage hall," one Twitter user noted.

The online betting service Paddy Power made its feelings known by riffing on a scheduled Blatter re-election bid: "Despite the arrest of #FIFA Officials on corruption charges, Sepp says he remains confident of getting 107% of the vote in Friday's election," the company quipped on its Twitter account.

An Athens cab driver, who said he does not follow football, even drew parallels to the corruption scandals involving Greek officials in recent years.

"There is corruption on the whole planet,” said the driver, who identified himself only as Panagiotis. “Anywhere there is power. So Greek politicians or soccer officials, what’s the difference, really?

Special correspondent Christina Boyle in London contributed to this report.

For more news from Europe, follow @ZeitchikLAT on Twitter

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