By Ryan Mayer, CBS Local Sports
Arrests were made and charges brought against multiple high-level FIFA executives today at FIFA headquarters in Zurich following an extensive investigation by the FBI into bribes surrounding the organizations marquee events. The soccer world was largely unsurprised by the news. FIFA’s corruption has been well known at this point. From match fixing scandals, to buying votes in elections for the president of the organization, the world’s governing body of the beautiful game has seen it all.
For their part, FIFA is welcoming the investigation with spokesman saying the organization is the “damaged party” in a press conference today.
All of these scandals have gone largely unnoticed by a majority of the American populace because soccer isn’t as popular in the US as it is in other countries around the world.
Don’t get me wrong, the World Cup is hugely popular and only gaining in popularity with each cycle. In 2014, viewership of the USA vs. Belgium match averaged 16 million viewers on ESPN, which was the second largest viewership behind only USA-Portugal of the same tournament. But outside of the World Cup, the sport generally falls onto the backburner for many Americans.
The question in relation to these cases pending against FIFA is simple. Why should Americans care?
“Hopefully what emerges from this is a very clean sport, with no corruption from officials, definitely no corruption on the field,” said Blake Thomsen, a soccer writer for American Soccer Now. We as Americans do have an obsession with whether our sports are free from cheating or scandal even if it’s a seemingly insignificant charge (re: DeflateGate).
“I think there are a couple reasons,” said Noah Davis a soccer writer for Grantland and others in a phone interview. “I think one of them is it increases the chances that the US will host the World Cup in 2022.” For those that are unaware, the US was one of the finalists in the bidding process for the 2022 World Cup, which was awarded to Qatar. That bidding process is part of the investigation that the Swiss are currently conducting. FIFA has stated that the World Cups in Russia and Qatar in 2018 and 2022 respectively will go on as planned, which is to be expected this early in the investigation.
Davis believes that if corruption were to be found with the voting process for those two World Cups, that the vote could be re-held therefore increasing the chances of the US winning the bid. However, he believes it’s too early in the process to say definitively. “I don’t think that will end up happening but it certainly is something to look out for,” said Davis. Thomsen agrees. “I think this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Thomsen. “They haven’t gotten to FIFA president Sepp Blatter yet, but it sounds like something could happen with him and other FIFA officials and that could absolutely re-open the voting process. If it does, the US would be the heavy favorite to get the World Cup should Qatar be stripped of it.” With the marked popularity of not just USA matches during the last world cup cycle (the Germany-Argentina final was the most watched soccer match in American history) it’s easy to see how hosting a World Cup in the future would interest many Americans.
There’s another reason, one that’s not so far flung into the future that Americans should watch carefully how these proceedings play out. That reason is the Copa America Centenario, a tournament featuring 16 international squads from CONCACAF (USA & Mexico for example) and CONMEBOL (think Brazil, Argentina, etc.) that will be played on US soil in 2016. For a country that loves international soccer, this could be a big event, if it is held. “A lot of the allegations, are tied to that tournament with the bribery and all of that,” said Davis. “Because of that it’s a little unclear what’s going to happen with that tournament now.”
As Davis correctly points out, the tournament hasn’t gotten a lot of publicity yet and more casual fans of the game that tune in for the World Cup probably don’t know much about it yet. Therefore, it would be hard to say that the cancellation of the tournament (if that were to happen) would be a big blow. “It’ll be more of a missed opportunity,” said Davis. He’s right; it would be a missed opportunity because it would be “a good bridge between World Cups.” Having an international tournament of that caliber, and the stars that would come with it play out on US soil could certainly continue to propel the momentum of the sport further. “To have the likes of Messi and Neymar and Louis Suarez playing here, playing in front of Americans in games that matter? I think would be huge,” said Thomsen.
The charges and arrests today will take a while to play out in the legal system. The case will surely fade from our minds as we go back to worrying about more important things like deflated footballs or foreign substances on pitcher’s forearms. But, there are reasons to at least keep a cursory eye on the horizon as this case moves forward. Even for the casual fan of the game, or the one who follows it every four years in a fit of nationalistic pride. The US could see some of the biggest stars in the game come to our soil over the next 7 years. You don’t have to read every word of the case file, but keep it in mind as the beautiful game tries to get cleaned up.
Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him. Agree/Disagree? Thoughts, comments, complaints? Email him.