When a city in the United States would like to host something as large as the Super Bowl or something as relatively modest as the USA Swimming national championships, that city puts together a bid package it hopes will be a winner in the competition against other cities vying to host the same event.
The bid contains incentives, which could range from very reasonable accommodation and transportation arrangements during the event, to donations to development programs, to whatever else might make for a successful bid. It would be standard that officials of the organization that controls the event would visit the various bid cities to study the facilities and infrastructure of the bids, and would be treated very well while visiting.
This is called business.
In the world of international soccer, as has been long understood, things work a bit differently, but the fulcrum of the deals - offering something of value for something you wish to have - has always been the same.
As was laid out in a Department of Justice indictment unsealed Wednesday, sponsors who wish to have their names linked to prestigious tournaments, media outlets that wish to broadcast those events, and cities or countries that wish to host them have to do more than pick up soccer officials at the airport. They have to pick them up and also bring along suitcases full of money.
This is called racketeering, and people get put in jail for it.
In a joint news conference held by Justice, the FBI, and the IRS, the case was laid out against 14 people who face prosecution for a variety of crimes that also include wire fraud, bribery, and money laundering.
The majority of the indictments are linked to events in North, Central, and South America, and came about with the cooperation of a former soccer boss named Chuck Blazer, whose lifestyle became so figuratively large that he kept a $6,000-a-month apartment in Manhattan for his cats (and a parrot) and who became so literally large that he topped 450 pounds and got around only with the aid of a motorized scooter. The IRS was not happy with Blazer's tax-reporting methods and convinced him that recording conversations with his fellow extortionists would be a good idea.
To say that what came out Wednesday is the tip of the iceberg regarding corruption in international soccer is not only a tired metaphor but doesn't do justice to what is still likely to be revealed. It had to take many suitcases of money, for instance, for FIFA, the international governing body of the game, to award men's World Cups to Russia and Qatar, both of which are political, social, and human-rights nightmares, and one of which is so damned hot that the tournament is scheduled for winter and will disrupt every major league in the world.
It's easy to pick out the soccer scalawags and easy to understand how they became scalawags. In a very cynical method, those who wished to influence voting for the awarding of various events targeted representatives from poor or developing nations. It is a fact that votes have long been purchased, and that's how you get a World Cup in Qatar.
As for the rest, the scalawags are not as easy to identify.
Soccer is allowed to be this corrupt only because its corporate partners, in the areas of sponsorship, marketing, and media rights, shrug and play along.
How did FIFA choose to award an international sponsorship to Coca-Cola and not Pepsi-Cola? How were the U.S. rights to the next two World Cups won in a bid process by Fox and not ABC/ESPN? These are all legitimate questions. (The latter became more legitimate in February, when FIFA also gifted the 2026 World Cup to Fox without going through any bid process at all. How did FIFA and Fox become such buddies?)
If soccer squeaks for attention everywhere else, how can it not be assumed that sponsors and media companies have to provide some grease as well?
That will be the interesting part as the tide of secrecy recedes and the size of the iceberg becomes more apparent (double metaphor!). The crooks who stuff money in their pockets should be caught and punished. The tin-pot dictator, Sepp Blatter, who runs the whole organization but was not indicted Wednesday, should either resign in shame or be defeated in his reelection bid on Friday. That's easy to see.
But save some shame for the companies, many of them from the United States, that stay quiet when dealing with the way soccer plays its sordid game off the field.
That's not business. That's not merely making the client happy. That's the kind of thing that puts people in jail. And in this case, the more the better.