When Gareth Sweeney checked the flurry of text messages on his phone Wednesday morning, the editor of Transparency International’s Corruption in Sport Initiative couldn’t believe the news they brought.
Of all the scandals to entangle sports in recent decades — the tearful doping admission by seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and bribery allegations surrounding Salt Lake City’s bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics among them — few could compete with the global surprise from images of Swiss police leading FIFA officials out of a posh Zurich hotel.
Dogged for years by suspicions of corruption, the governing body for the world’s most popular sport is now in the center of a sprawling, spiraling scandal.
Fourteen people, including nine high-ranking current and past FIFA officials, were charged Wednesday in U.S. District Court in New York in connection with what federal prosecutors called “systemic” and “deep-rooted” corruption.
“We were aware of the Justice Department investigation,” Sweeney said, disbelief hanging on each word. “But we weren’t expecting such a response.”
The FIFA imbroglio, unearthed as part of a joint effort that includes the FBI and IRS, extends far beyond the average sports scandal. This isn’t about arguments over the pressure per square inch in footballs used by the New England Patriots or debates about the sincerity of New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez’s apology for using performance-enhancing drugs.
The litany of previous scandals — Deflategate, Bountygate, BALCO, Biogenesis — seems almost quaint in the face of more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks alleged in the FIFA case.
“They’re treating FIFA as an organized-crime entity,” said Douglas E. Small, who spent 15 years as an FBI special agent focused on white-collar crime that included money laundering and public corruption.
That’s part of the reason why FIFA’s burgeoning legal troubles have little parallel in the rich history of sports scandal.
This touches more people — and vastly more money — than Pete Rose’s lifetime ban from Major League Baseball for betting on games or the University of North Carolina’s scandal involving academics and athletics.
Sweeney, whose organization tracks corruption around the world, sees some comparison between what became public in Zurich and the furor around the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. International Olympic Committee members were accused of taking bribes from Salt Lake Organizing Committee officials. Ten IOC members were expelled or resigned. The bid’s leaders were eventually acquitted by a federal judge.
But even that comparison falls short.
“Given the seniority of the FIFA executives arrested, this is already a bigger scandal than the IOC,” Sweeney said.
And the scandal could grow. Sepp Blatter, FIFA president since 1998, wasn’t among the indicted. Key officials from Asia and Africa weren’t either.
“If you believe the Justice Department, this is only the beginning of their efforts,” said Brett Forrest, an author and journalist whose book “The Big Fix” examined an epidemic of match-fixing in soccer.
Added Small: “When you have an organization like this, it’s not just like a guy who is just going out and stealing money. You work your way up through the organization.”
Some observers see FIFA’s structure — shrouded in secrecy and unconstrained by different cultures or national borders — as contributing to a culture that fed the current scandal.
Soccer is everywhere. So is FIFA’s multibillion-dollar empire, one that extends far beyond the reach of the NFL or MLB.
“It’s a game and a business that transcends national boundaries, different languages, legal jurisdictions,” Forrest said. “FIFA is not beholden to anybody because it’s an international organization and, at its heart, it’s really not even beholden to fans.
“The only thing that could affect FIFA would be the wallet. If sponsors considered reducing or pulling sponsorship money, that would be something that would compel it to change.”
In 2011, Transparency International offered a set of recommendations for FIFA to cure a “crisis of integrity.” They included addressing questions of corruption simmering around the organization’s presidential election and awarding of future World Cups. Not much happened.
“All of the recommendations were recycled and watered down,” Sweeney said.
He sees poor governance structures in international sports contributing to corruption, as nonprofit organizations operate with a sense of autonomy and a lack of accountability that one is unlikely to find in a business of similar size.
And if the scandal is to provoke lasting, transformational change in FIFA, it won’t come as much from indictments and federal agents and surprise arrests at hotels as another source.
“The power really rests with FIFA to reform FIFA,” Sweeney said.