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  • Paree Desai

FIFA: a legacy of corruption

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

hosts.


Finally, on May 27, 2015, FIFA’s corruption became known to the world. The US

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


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


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

day.


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

“absurd”.


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?

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