The scandal engulfing FIFA, soccer’s governing body, is metastasizing so fast that allegations of comprehensive corruption defy comparison to other sports scandals. So maybe politics provides a better metaphor.
“It’s no hyperbole to say that this is to soccer what Watergate was to U.S. politics,” said Ben Grossman, a sports-media consultant calling from Canada, where the Women’s World Cup kicks off on Saturday. Grossman, who is advising Fox on its coverage, is a Minnesota native whose experience reflects the global game: He worked for the 1994 World Cup that was held in the United States, as well as for Major League Soccer and English Premier League teams (along with editing a media magazine).
“This is as big as it gets in the business of the biggest sport in the world” Grossman said. Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s recently resigned president, “is the recognized leader of a sport that has absolutely exploded on the business side and someone who was considered untouchable. Loretta Lynch apparently didn’t agree.”
Indeed, the U.S. attorney general, just weeks into the job, announced a 47-count, 14-person indictment for racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering on May 27. Blatter isn’t one of the 14. Yet. But his hasty exit just four days after being re-elected to an absurd, even obscene, fifth term days after the arrests suggests he might face a legal “red card,” too.
The tragedy was followed by farce in the case of Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice president who quickly released — and quickly retracted — a video in which he unwittingly cited a satirical story from the Onion in his defense. This makes it difficult to evaluate Warner’s claim that Blatter and other FIFA officials schemed to influence a 2010 election in Warner’s native Trinidad and Tobago. But if so, the sports scandal will even more closely approximate a political one.
And with Onion-like timing, “United Passions,” a FIFA-financed film deemed a “dramatic fiction,” gets its U.S. release on Friday. Really.
FIFA sponsors have not been caught up in the scandal, but do face scrutiny. Most issued muted reactions to the initial indictments and Blatter’s resignation, but behind the scenes, sponsor pressure is likely intensifying.
“Sponsors can be a strong voice and force for transparency, clarity and public accessibility,” said Abraham Madkour, executive editor at Sports Business Journal. Marketers, he said, can pay up to $50 million annually for FIFA sponsorship, and “they’re supposed to tell their shareholders that they’re paying millions of dollars to a brand that is incredibly damaged or seen as corrupt or seen as incredibly arrogant? In 2015 that no longer applies, and brands are seeing that they have a lot more power to push, very, very firmly, through back channels.”
Grossman’s view again echoed Watergate. “When in doubt, follow the money. There’s no doubt that once sponsors start asking questions, things start to happen.”
Another reason sponsor response may matter more is that FIFA may have less leverage. After all, if a firm took a strong stand, it would look craven if a competitor swooped in.
So marketers will matter. So too will media, added Madkour. “The way that news changes and the way social media is able to dictate change and sway opinion and play influencer in the whole conversation has incredibly changed the landscape.”
Most immediately, investigators will govern events. “You have to look at D.C. before you look at Madison Avenue right now in terms of who’s really driving this,” said Grossman.
FIFA’s disgrace threatens to eclipse the grace and grit of the world’s best women soccer players. But as with previous World Cups, the sport itself is its best antidote; the “beautiful game” can beat the grotesque graft some soccer suits are accused of.
“The idea that there’s corruption in FIFA is almost baked in the perception of fans,” said Grossman. “What happens in Zurich has been great theater. But once the tournament starts, they just want great soccer.”
That’s likely what they’ll get when the deep field takes the pitch in Canada. So at least during the tournament, fans should shrug off the scandal and show FIFA officials that it’s the game, not their games, that really matter.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.