The many, many residents of Planet Earth who were fixated Wednesday on the U.S. indictment of senior figures governing the world’s most popular sport had to confront two cherished stereotypes of Americans:
The first: Americans don’t care about soccer, so much so that they can’t even be bothered to call “the beautiful game” by its proper name – football.
The second: that Americans are very strong believers in their own exceptionalism, fond of butting in to tell the rest of the world how to behave. And they’re not shy about using their muscle to do it.
Every stereotype has at least a grain of truth. So how did America’s views of the sport — and of itself — play into the investigation? And what does the soccer-loving world think of it all?
First, if you happened to miss all the drama: Swiss police, working with the U.S. Justice Department, swept in on senior officials of FIFA, soccer’s governing body, who were preparing for a meeting in Zurich. Altogether, 14 people have been charged, and U.S. officials said they are far from done with their investigation. They described alleged bribery and racketeering in terms normally saved for drug dealers or mafia figures.
Soccer fans are of course shocked — shocked! — that FIFA might be riddled with corruption. For years, there have been allegations of payoffs connected to awarding the right to host the World Cup, most recently to Russia in 2018 and in 2022 to Qatar — a Persian Gulf country thought by many to be simply too hot to hold a tournament traditionally held in the summer months. (Earlier this year, FIFA announced that it would move the 2022 World Cup to November and December.)
Almost exactly a year ago, on the eve of the 2014 World Cup games in Brazil, the Sunday Times of London published a report based on leaked documents that outlined what it said were the payoffs that guaranteed Qatar would land the World Cup tournament. This list details FIFA scandals during Sepp Blatter’s 17 years as president. Blatter — widely considered the most powerful person in sports — was not named in the U.S. indictment, and is running for another term in a vote scheduled for later this week.
Overall, the U.S. is far more interested in soccer than it used to be. But the sport’s profile is still much lower here than in many parts of the world, and one expert quoted by the BBC suggested that made it easier for the Americans to act.
FIFA is just too powerful for many countries to want to take on, said Alexandra Wrage, who advised soccer’s governing body on how to fight corruption, but ended up resigning in protest.
U.S. officials also have an entire arsenal of far-reaching laws designed to fight organized crime they can use against the FIFA officials, plus a lot of investigative resources. Any tainted money from anywhere in the world that passes through U.S. banks is enough for American officials to launch a legal case, according to this report.
There is plenty of speculation that the Justice Department got involved after the United States lost its bid to host the 2022 tournament. But sources told the New York Times that the investigation actually came out of an unrelated probe of Russian organized crime.
Predictably, considering the state of relations between Moscow and Washington, the Russians aren’t happy. The Russian narrative about the Ukraine crisis, for instance, is that it stems from the U.S. and its allies getting pushy in a country vital to Moscow’s interests.
Russian officials say they have nothing to hide regarding their winning bid for the 2018 World Cup. And they see the move against FIFA as another example of U.S. overreach – “yet another case of illegal extraterritorial application of U.S. laws,” in the words of a Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Elsewhere, though, the reaction is more that it’s high time someone got serious about cleaning up FIFA. And if it happens to be the Americans, that’s okay. The Voice of America compiled this handy reaction piece. Among its highlights are these bits from soccer-made Brazil and Argentina:
—Former FIFA world player of the year Romario, who is now a senator in Brazil, lamented that it wasn’t the Brazilians who cracked down on FIFA and his country’s soccer establishment. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t our police that arrested them, but someone had to eventually arrest them one day.”
—Argentine great Diego Maradona suggested in a radio interview that Blatter might be next to fall.
—Then, there was this from Gary Lineker, a former member of England’s World Cup team: “There can’t be a more corrupt, deplorable organization on earth than FIFA. This is extraordinary! FIFA is imploding. The best thing that could possibly happen to the beautiful game.”