FIFA Leaders continue to be berated for corrupt practices
The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) is no stranger to scandals, but the Panama Papers scandal detailing corruption among some of the wealthiest leaders and corporations has brought further scrutiny to the already tarnished organization.
On May 27, 2015, a crackdown began as 14 FIFA officials and corporate executives were arrested in Zurich based on indictments from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Among the charges, prosecutors alleged that at least one vote for the hosts of the 2010 FIFA World Cup had been sold to the highest bidder: in this case, prosecutors alleged that Jack Warner, a committee member from Trinidad and Tobago, was offered $1 million from Morroco's bid committee before he accepted a $10 million payout from South Africa, the eventual host of the World Cup.
"These individuals and organizations engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games, where the games would be held, and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide," said U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch in a statement to the media following the announcement of the arrests. Lynch further compared the investigation into the FIFA officials to those of Mafia members in Italy, citing their usage of the American banking system as part of their schemes.
On June 2, then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter announced that he would resign his position once the FIFA congress decided on a successor. After winning a fifth term on May 29, the growing calls for change amid the fallout from the May 27 arrests seemed to finally win out. "FIFA needs a profound overhaul," Blatter said during his announcement of his resignation. "While I have a mandate from the membership of FIFA, I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football—the fans, the players, the clubs, the people who live, breathe and love football as much as we all do at FIFA."
On Feb. 26, 2016, Swiss executive Gianni Infantino was elected president of FIFA after gaining a simple majority on the second ballot. "We will restore the image of FIFA and the respect of FIFA, and everyone in the world will applaud us,” Infantino said during his acceptance speech at the convention hall in Zurich. “We have to be proud of what we will do together. I want to work with all of you in order to restore and rebuild a new era in FIFA, a new era where we can again put football in the center of the stage.”
During the same meeting of FIFA's 207 eligible members, a number of reforms were passed. These changes included new term limits for the FIFA president, council members, and committee members, a new 36-member FIFA Council to replace the 24-member executive committee which previously determined the World Cup host, an independent compliance committee to monitor the council, and the separation of power between political decision-making and business operations. It seemed as if Infantino's reign as the new head of FIFA might be able to cleanse the organization of its shady reputation.
Yet, six weeks after his reign started, Infantino and others were named in the dump of 11 million documents detailing corruption. During Infantino's time as legal counsel for the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), the UEFA sold television broadcasting rights to Full Play Group. Rights which were then resold at a considerable margin.
Infantino is not the only one under scrutiny. On Monday, FIFA's independent ethics committee confirmed that one of its ethics lawyers was under investigation for a business relationship discovered by the Panama Papers. The leak apparently detailed Juan Pedro Damiani and his law firm working for seven offshore companies linked to money laundering.
As if the continued questions of corruption among FIFA officials haven't been bad enough, some of soccer's biggest stars are also under fire. The biggest name identified by the leak was FC Barcelona forward Lionel Messi. Charges of how a company owned by Messi and his father called Mega Star Enterprises was used to avoid paying taxes on player's image rights deals bring home just how much corruption there is in the world of international competition.
Though soccer will persist as the most heavily watched sport worldwide, officials are no longer afraid of the threat of expulsion from international competition as they pursue FIFA. Though Infantino has denied any wrongdoing and pledged to fight corruption within FIFA even harder, only time will tell if FIFA can be cleansed and have its reputation restored.