Blatter’s stunning departure opens door for FIFA to clean house

So long, and good riddance; that was the mood in world football a mere six days after a massive criminal investigation into corruption in world football put Sepp Blatter and FIFA firmly in the crosshairs. Blatter has now slunk off the stage, and FIFA now heads into some deeply interesting times.

Since the days of Joao Havelange, accusations of corruption both venial and mortal have dogged the governing body. Tensions between the old guard of Europe and South America, and the upstarts of Asia, Africa and America have led to schisms and spats. But when it suddenly became clear after 1994 that a World Cup could mint money on a scale that only the Olympics can approach, FIFA went from being a somewhat sleepy governing body, of interest only to journalists and football wonks, to a global powerhouse. And, if the FBI and the Department of Justice are correct, it also rapidly became an organization that lied, stole and corrupted almost everything it touched.

Blatter will bear much of the blame — this alleged looting of world football undeniably took place on his watch — the fact is that FIFA’s very structure also must bear some examination. Blatter’s genius was to realize that FIFA’s voting structure, a kind of radical democracy if you will, allowed the smaller nations to have as much of a say in world game as England or Germany. In theory, this could have been used to grow the game worldwide, ensuring that a confederation from sub-Saharan Africa had the same place at the table as the French did. Instead, it became an invitation for payoffs and vote-rigging.

When the smaller confederations, and America’s own CONCACAF is one of those, voted as a bloc, they could provide a counterweight to the bigger, richer federations. Over time, this meant that if Blatter locked up Africa, Asia and the Americas, there was no way he could be deposed. Of course, that all came with a price.

As the troughs filled, so came the moments of low comedy along the way. Tales of African delegates reportedly swanning in for World Cup finals and leaving with shopping carts piled high with consumer goods became commonplace (See: 1994. 2002. 2010. 2012 Champions League final). One representative from the Bahamas "found" an envelope with $40,000 in it (This led to the banning of Mohammed bin Hammam from world football by FIFA). High-ranking federation officials seemed to be enjoying the good life, flying first-class and staying at the best hotels, even as the playing fields back at home rotted (CONCACAF chief Jeffrey Webb, Cayman Islands). One brash executive asked for a knighthood in exchange for voting for an English World Cup (revealed by England’s bid chief; two ExCo members subsequently barred from voting on 2018, 2022 World Cups). Another baldly requested, and got, a check for $10 million (Jack Warner, the official who received the bribe from South Africa at the heart of the FBI case).

There were some shoots among the sewage. It is true that the game has been greatly expanded across the globe. Women’s soccer has also gone from nowhere on the map to a 2015 that sees an eagerly-awaited World Cup in Canada. But there is a nagging feeling that some of this was incidental, that more often than not, the money fell out of the officials’ pockets into the game simply because they were already stuffed to the brim.

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The tipping point came in 2010, when, in a deeply flawed ballot, the World Cups were awarded to Russia and Qatar. Russia seemed a curious choice, but fair enough: It is a European nation with a rich football heritage. But a summer World Cup staged in a blistering Middle Eastern nation with little soccer history? That one reeked to the hills of payoffs and complaints started to come from around the globe.

Suddenly, taking a hard look at FIFA was no longer for lonely independent journalists, such as the courageous Andrew Jennings, who has been assisting the FBI for six years. Instead, FIFA’s foibles started to make American nightly news. Late-night comedians started cracking jokes. Big newspapers, with big budgets, started sniffing around. And then, this week, the FBI moved in on Zurich. The party was over.

What happens next is open for considerable debate. If FIFA cannot deeply and meaningfully reform, as the IOC did after their own scandal in 1998, they will likely dissolve. The bigger leagues and federations already hold enough power to set up their own World Cup or Cups if they should so choose, and it’s hard not to think the Europeans and South Americans will not be tempted to do so in the wake of this crisis. Sadly, that would be the wrong direction for the global game. The African nations need a voice, the Americas beyond the United States need a voice, and Asia, a passionate soccer hotbed, cannot go without a seat at the table.

There will be a price. Regional confederations, some famously unwilling to share their budgets and books, are going to have to make their ledgers and salaries public. And the cheats are going to have to be flushed out. Can it happen? Maybe now with the sport’s chief enabler gone, yes. But it will not be easy to rid FIFA of a culture that seems based on graft and favor-trading. It’s not hard to suspect that world soccer might have to go back to the drawing board and come up with something entirely new to run the global game.