- Paree Desai
FIFA: a legacy of corruption
Source: New York Times (25/09/2015)
On November 23, 2010, France’s President at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, hosted a quaint
lunch for four at the Élysée Palace. His guests comprised French football legend and former
FIFA vice-president Michel Platini, Qatar’s then Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim,
and the then crown prince and current Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani.
Nine days later, FIFA awarded the Gulf state with no notable football tradition but a rich
history of human rights violations the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Subsequently, 2011
saw Qatar Sports Investments, a state-owned wealth fund, take over a financially ailing Paris
Saint-Germain and Qatari broadcaster beIN buy the French TV rights for Ligue 1. France and
Qatar have engaged in several fruitful commercial and trade deals since. Of course, all parties
present at the infamous lunch deny any connection between these events.
Fast forward to present day, we are in the midst of the most chaotic and contentious of all
World Cups, far from FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s vision of “the best World Cup ever”.
And the fact of the matter is that the Fédération Internationale de Football Association has
only itself to blame. Perhaps FIFA had once, closer to its modest beginnings in 1904, stood
for governing world football with fairness and integrity. However, in the decades leading up
to 2022, FIFA became a vast, sprawling, and powerful empire built around corruption and
misconduct, masquerading under the banner of celebrating football.
The first accusations of FIFA officials’ extensive use of bribery can largely be traced back to
Joao Havelange, president of FIFA from 1974 to 1998. A Swiss prosecutor found in 2012
that during Havelange’s tenure, he and Ricardo Teixeira — a member of FIFA's powerful
executive committee (exco) who was once married to Havelange's daughter — took as much as 14.2 million Swiss francs in “commissions” more commonly known as bribes, from
marketing company International Sport and Leisure (ISL) in exchange for FIFA's exclusive
marketing rights, and exclusive TV and radio rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cup.
The next FIFA President was Sepp Blatter, now commonly associated with the 2015 “FIFA
Gate” scandal that led to his downfall, whose term was tainted from the very start. As
Havelange’s long-time general secretary and right-hand man, Blatter was aware of the bribes
and even attempted to cover them up when he took over. Things only got worse from then on.
Blatter and other money-hungry FIFA executives corrupted the business of international
football and warped the system to enrich themselves, thus creating a new norm for all FIFA
dealings. These individuals, who were entrusted with duties ranging from constructing
football fields for children in the global south to organising World Cups, abused their
positions of power year after year, tournament after tournament.
In the years leading up to 2015, there were some attempts to bring the truth behind FIFA to
light. One significant occasion was in 2002 when Michel Zen-Ruffinen, FIFA’s then general
secretary, produced a 21-page dossier condemning Blatter for fraud, corruption, and
mismanagement. In a noteworthy clean-up effort at the topmost ranks of football’s global
governing body, 11 of the 24 exco members filed a criminal complaint to a Zurich court
against Blatter’s management of FIFA, appealing for an investigation into Zen-Ruffinen’s
accusations, which were backed-up by 300 pages of documents. After a sham of an
investigation was derailed by Blatter’s formidable legal team, Zurich’s public prosecutor
closed the case with no action taken against both FIFA and Blatter.
Nine years passed before the first decisive blow against FIFA was struck by the United
States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Internal Revenue Service (IRS). They
uncovered that Chuck Blazer — back then a FIFA exco member and general secretary of
CONCACAF (FIFA regional governing body for North America, Central America, and the
Caribbean) — had evaded taxes for a decade despite hauling in millions of dollars and
threatened him with prosecution in early 2011. Following this encounter, Blazer became the
FBI’s mole within FIFA, presumably to avoid prison time. He recorded key meetings
between FIFA officials and aided the FBI in gathering information on other FIFA bigwigs.
What followed was a long and thorough investigation by US and Swiss authorities into FIFA,
its executives, and its internal processes. Questions ranged from FIFA’s rather opaque
finances to the awarding of marketing and TV contracts, and even the selection of World Cup
Finally, on May 27, 2015, FIFA’s corruption became known to the world. The US
Department of Justice released a 47-count, 164-page criminal indictment charging 9 FIFA
officials and 5 sports executives with having received $150 million in bribes over a span of
more than two decades. 7 of the 14 indicted, including FIFA vice-presidents Jeffrey Webb
and Eugenio Figueredo, were arrested by Swiss police at the Baur au Lac hotel in Zürich in
an early-morning raid. While the DOJ’s charges primarily concerned soliciting and taking
bribes from sports marketing executives, there was also evidence of an additional alarming
form of bribery — Blazer had been cooperating closely with the FBI and admitted to
conspiring with other exco members to accept bribes in connection with the selection of
France and South Africa as the 1998 and 2010 World Cup hosts.
During the months and years following May 2015, many other probes were launched into
FIFA’s processes and officials as well as the involved marketing company executives. Some
of these were effective and resulted in criminal convictions and bans from positions of power
in international football. However, other investigations were hindered by shredded paper
trails, broken computers, and friends in high places. This includes Blatter and Platini who
were obviously corrupt and deserving of criminal sentences but managed to escape with mere
slaps on their wrists from FIFA’s Ethics Committee consisting of 6-year bans from FIFA and
relatively measly fines of £33,700 and £54,000 respectively.
Another high-profile figure indicted by the DOJ in 2015 was Jack Warner, FIFA vice-
president and CONCACAF president until his suspension in 2011 on corruption charges. The
79-year-old has amassed his immense fortune through wire fraud, racketeering, and money
laundering, going as far as pocketing relief funds for Haiti post the 2010 earthquake. He was
in Trinidad and Tobago at the time of the arrests and has resisted extradition to the US to this
A further shortcoming of the investigations were their findings of a supposed lack of a chain
of evidence linking Russia and Qatar to any kind of corruption in their 2018 and 2022 World
Cup bid successes. There have been reports of bribes worth several millions being paid to
FIFA exco members by interested Russian and Qatari individuals and groups. However,
despite these spectacular accusations against connected persons, Russia and Qatar were
cleared of all wrongdoing, and the World Cups went forward.
Gianni Infantino, former general secretary at UEFA, took the office of president in 2015 and
was tasked with cleaning-up FIFA. However, he was subjected to a FIFA Ethics Committee
investigation after his initial refusal to accept a salary package of 1.95m Swiss francs, which
he described in a leaked recording of a FIFA council meeting as “insulting”. He was cleared
of the charges. In 2017, he once again found himself under scrutiny for purportedly under-
declaring the money he spent on his election campaign, and inappropriately attempting to
influence the election of a new Confederation of African Football president. Infantino
responded by removing the committee’s chairman and members. In 2020, the Swiss public
prosecutor opened a criminal investigation into Infantino following inquiries into meetings he
had with the Swiss attorney general, Michael Lauber, and another law official, Rinaldo
Arnold. All parties involved denied wrongdoing and Infantino described the complaints as
So sure, corruption within FIFA has declined considerably since the dark Blatter era. But
ongoing investigations, dubiously cleared charges, and a World Cup built on the bones and
ill-health of thousands of migrant workers in a country that denies people their sexualities and
voices are deeply troubling occurrences which compel us to ask the question: when will FIFA
be uncontaminated by the selfish agendas of its power-hungry management?