Allegations of corruption at FIFA are nothing new to those who follow the international soccer organization. But what was surprising to some on Wednesday was the sense that someone somewhere was finally doing something substantial about them.
The U.S. Justice Department unsealed a 47-count indictment in federal court in Brooklyn that detailed charges against 14 people accused of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy.
The most serious are the racketeering charges, which allege that the officials turned soccer “into a criminal enterprise,” according to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who spoke to reporters in New York. A conviction could command a sentence of up to 20 years.
“The idea of being shocked about bribery and racketeering at FIFA is like being shocked about jumping into a pool and finding yourself wet,” said Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine.
“What makes this particularly different is the fact that this time it looks like the charges have real teeth. I mean, coming from the U.S. Department of Justice, that’s a first. That’s never happened before,” he said.
‘We are issuing FIFA a red card’
The complexity of the investigation Lynch described was evident by the federal officials accompanying her, including a U.S. attorney, FBI Director James Comey and Richard Weber, head of the IRS Criminal Investigation division.
“This really is the World Cup of fraud, and today we are issuing FIFA a red card,” Weber said.
FIFA officials are accused of taking bribes totaling more than $150 million and in return providing “lucrative media and marketing rights” to soccer tournaments as kickbacks over the past 24 years.
“The defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world,” Comey said in a statement. “Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA.”
The indictment “is the beginning of our work, not the end” of an effort to rid global soccer of corruption, said Kelly Currie, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
After the news conference, Chris Eaton, former FIFA head of security, said that U.S. officials have done “something that no other police organization or other region has done so far on FIFA.”
“The fact is there’s been no jurisdiction that was able to take a report, or to take action, or to coordinate a global action such as the U.S. has done today,” he said. “We’re seeing for the first time a very powerful jurisdiction take action against a very powerful, opaque organization, FIFA.”
Stan Collymore, a former member of England’s national team, said it’s a good thing Washington got involved in FIFA’s business. He wasn’t the only one saying so.