In a Road to Damascus twist, on Tuesday FIFA President Sepp Blatter asked the Swiss government to launch a criminal investigation into corruption related to Qatar being chosen to host the 2022 World Cup. This unprecedented move comes on the heels of a week of backlash to the FIFA Ethics Committee’s final conclusion on the Qatar question: “The potentially problematic facts and circumstances identified by the report concerning the Qatar 2022 bid were, all in all, not suited to compromise the integrity of the 2018/2022 bidding process as a whole.” These “potentially problematic facts” include a swath of bribes (“improper payments”) paid by Mohamed bin Hamman, a chief supporter of the Qatari bid and former Asian Football Confederation president, which the report concludes were not directly related to securing the Cup, as well as payments by Qatari officials themselves, which made a “negative impression” but did not technically fall afoul of FIFA rules. The Committee’s decision was quickly and repeatedly slammed as a farce, and was followed by strong calls for the investigative report upon which it was based to be made public. Blatter adamantly refused to release the report, which made it all the more surprising when he seemed to go a step further by calling for the Swiss Office of the Attorney General to investigate. Should a criminal investigation proceed, not only would the government’s findings be made public, but corrupt FIFA officials would find themselves facing something entirely new: the pinch of handcuffs rather than a pinch to their finances.
While FIFA lodging the criminal complaint should be applauded, singing halleluiahs over Blatter’s conversion to the church of anticorruption would be a bit premature. In fact, this may be his most strategic move yet.
To understand the moves Blatter may be making, it would be helpful to say a word or two about the environment which has enabled FIFA to avoid accountability for its ethical lapses for so long. Until now, FIFA has been allowed to police itself. In the face of allegations of bribery and human rights abuses, it has been the organization’s own assessment of its actions that has determined whether those actions would be endorsed or punished. Two factors have been crucial to FIFA’s ability to shield itself from external oversight:
- FIFA is based in Switzerland, where until last year bribery of private individuals was not a criminal offense unless it resulted in unfair competition. Under the current law, private bribery may be investigated only upon the complaint of an injured party (though the Swiss Conseil Fédéral is calling for an amendment requiring private bribery be investigated ex officio).
- FIFA’s mandated relationship with its members (the national soccer associations) allows the organization to bully governments. FIFA regulations state that “each member shall manage its affairs independently and with no influence from third parties,” and FIFA quickly suspends any national soccer association whose government interferes with a national association’s affairs. The rule serves a legitimate purpose (think of how rulers such as Stalin, Franco and Saddam Hussein have manipulated their soccer teams for political aims), but is also used to keep governments from meddling in FIFA interests. In 2013, for example, the South African government was informed that any investigation into allegations of match-fixing in friendlies leading up to the 2010 World Cup would result in the South African national team being banned from participating in FIFA affiliated matches. This power imbalance created a culture in which FIFA fiats are unassailable and national soccer associations are more concerned with securing FIFA goodwill than adhering to national law. FIFA is of course not all-powerful. The organization is only able to bully countries without the political and economic clout to stand up to it; unfortunately, the majority of its members fall into this category.
FIFA has been able to set itself up as a semi-sovereign entity, bound (or not bound, as the case may be) by its own rules rather than those of the communities and countries in which it operates. Blatter calling for external oversight in the form of a criminal investigation undermines the entire system. Just to be clear, this is overall a very welcome move: it is good for anticorruption, good for FIFA, and good for every kid that dreams of playing the beautiful game on the world’s greatest stage. But, call me a cynic, I doubt Blatter filed the complaint for these reasons. More likely, FIFA’s fourth-term President has read the writing on the wall, and figured out how to use it to his advantage.
Only a week prior to the Ethics Committee releasing its decision on the Qatar question, the New York Daily News ran a front page scoop of an FBI investigation involving Chuck Blazer, former secretary general of CONCACAF, the governing soccer body for North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The story, which was rife with the type of darkly comic details that beg to be incorporated in a Wes Anderson movie (wiretaps in keychains, a Trump Tower apartment for the exclusive use of unruly cats, a fleet of scooters used to buzz around New York), alleges that the FBI “flipped” Blazer three years ago. (In what was probably not the result of a high-speed chase, agents pulled Blazer over while he was whizzing down 5th Avenue on one of his scooters. When threatened with prosecution for failing to declare income from 1992-1998, during which period he oversaw the US hosting the 1994 World Cup, Blazer quickly agreed to become a cooperating witness in an investigation which allegedly links fraud and money laundering to the upper echelons of FIFA management.) According to the Daily News’ sources, the investigation—undertaken in cooperation with the US Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of New York—already involves a grand jury.
The US investigation, coupled with the recently changed Swiss law mentioned above (a change which, the Swiss government noted, was motivated in large part by corruption within international sporting associations…cough, cough), indicates that external oversight was coming whether Blatter liked it or not. On Tuesday he embraced the change, which was a strategic move on his part for a few reasons:
- Only half of the 24 Executive Committee (Ex-Co) members who voted to award Qatar the tournament are still at FIFA (unsurprisingly, seven of the members who left did so due to allegations of corruption). Calling for the Swiss investigation now does not threaten Blatter’s support base as much as it would have a couple of years ago.
- It is unclear what the Swiss investigation will turn up. On one hand, the Swiss government can seize records and subpoena witnesses, whereas the FIFA internal investigation relied upon volunteered information. On the other hand, the bidding process was set up so that potential hosts were jetting around the globe courting Ex-Co members wherever they found them, a process that has been described as “an invitation to corruption and collusion.” To be successful, the Swiss investigation will require a good deal of cooperation from law enforcement in diverse jurisdictions.
- The reputational risk to FIFA is minimal. Unless the investigation turns up evidence of murder most foul, it will be pretty hard to make the organization look worse than it already does.
The three points listed above are gambles: Blatter is no doubt hoping they work out in FIFA’s favor, but there is a chance they will not. They are smart bets, however, because just taking the risk guarantees Blatter gets what he really wants. Throughout this four-year scandal, the one point upon which he has never wavered is insisting that Qatar will host the tournament. By bringing in the Swiss, Blatter shifts the burden of informing the public and taking action to the government, letting FIFA keep its investigative report private. The Swiss investigation will take months or possibly years, which means months or possibly years before a justification for stripping Qatar of the tournament can be put forward. By that time, regardless of what the report says, it will be too late to move the Cup. Perversely, calling for a criminal investigation into corruption tainting how Qatar won the right host only makes it less likely that Qatar will lose that right.
Of course, regardless of any strategic scheming, moves to impose upon FIFA external oversight in the form of criminal investigations and prosecutions are positive developments and long overdue. But we must acknowledge the bargain Blatter is striking: a cleaner FIFA in exchange for a sacrificed Cup.