In an ironic twist, the U.S. Justice Department unsealed a 47-count indictment this morning charging nine present and former officials of the Federation Internationale de Football Association (better known by its acronym, FIFA) and five sports marketing executives with fraud, racketeering, bribery and money laundering. The guilty pleas of four individuals and two entities relating to these same allegations were also unsealed.
The indictment alleges that officials of FIFA, which controls the media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments worldwide, received bribes totaling more than $150 million in connection with the award of those rights. The defendants also include sports executives alleged to have paid those bribes, and the indictment also charges that intermediaries were used to launder the proceeds of those bribes. The lead charge in the indictment is an alleged violation of the federal Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
At the request of U.S. authorities, Swiss authorities arrested a number of individuals in Zurich this morning where FIFA executives had gathered for the organization’s annual meeting. The indictment was disclosed along with a Swiss investigation into mismanagement and money laundering associated with the award of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. FIFA has stated that the award of those tournaments will not be reconsidered.
The great irony of the indictment is that this is about football – not “American football” but “real” football (what we Americans call “soccer”) – the most popular sport on the planet. From a sports perspective, Americans are still newcomers to the game, though the women’s national team has enjoyed perennial success, the men’s national team has climbed in world rankings, and individual American players are becoming more commonplace on teams in the English Premier League and elsewhere in Europe. It is surely ironic for the U.S. to police a sport that struggles for attention at home.
But on the other hand, it should be no surprise to see a U.S. indictment that seeks to address corruption in FIFA that has been the stuff of rumors for years. The FIFA indictment is another example of how the United States projects not only military power but legal power overseas, using its robust Justice Department and court system to impose on the world the legal standard enshrined in its criminal laws. Given that the case is being prosecuted in the Eastern District of New York – where now-Attorney General Loretta Lynch previously served as the United States Attorney – the case may also signal something about Attorney General Lynch’s approach to such multinational cases.
The Department of Justice presumably justifies this extraterritorial exercise because the defendants include several Americans and because FIFA includes component associations located in the United States; the alleged offenses therefore impact Americans as well as those overseas. To the extent this is true, that seems to be appropriate justification. But another question is how that exercise of power will be perceived outside of the United States. Is the United States helping to solve a problem that has dogged international soccer for years? Or is it meddling in matters that are largely outside of its borders and that should not concern it? As news of this morning’s arrests and the unsealing of the indictment spreads, the world’s reaction may answer those questions.