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The Enron of Sports: FIFA’s Upheaval, from Corruption Arrests to Rising Death Toll in Qatar

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In what’s been described as the largest scandal in modern sports history, nine high-ranking soccer officials, including two current vice presidents of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, were indicted along with five sports marketing executives on federal corruption charges by the U.S. Justice Department. Among those arrested in connection with the probe is Jack Warner, former vice president of FIFA, who is accused of taking a $10 million bribe to cast his ballot for South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup. Despite the arrests, FIFA is holding an election today to pick the next president of the organization. FIFA President Sepp Blatter is seeking re-election for the post he has held since 1998. Many commentators have predicted he will be re-elected, though some nations, including the United States, have vowed to vote against him. We speak to sportswriter Dave Zirin and Jules Boykoff, former professional soccer player who represented the U.S. Olympic soccer team.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to what some have described as the largest scandal in modern sports history. Earlier this week, nine high-ranking soccer officials, including two current vice presidents of soccer’s world governing body, FIFA, were indicted along with five sports marketing executives on federal corruption charges by the U.S. Justice Department. Early on Wednesday, Swiss authorities made a series of arrests at a five-star hotel at the request of the the U.S. authorities.

AMY GOODMAN: Among those arrested in connection with the probe is Jack Warner, former vice president of FIFA, who is accused of taking a $10 million bribe to cast his ballot for South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the corruption dates back to at least 1991.

ATTORNEY GENERAL LORETTA LYNCH: The 14 defendants charged in the indictment we are unsealing today include high-ranking officials of FIFA, the international organization responsible for regulating and promoting soccer, leaders of regional and other governing bodies under the FIFA umbrella and sports marketing executives who, according to the indictment, paid millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks to obtain lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments. The 47-count indictment against these individuals includes charges of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies spanning two decades.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, the chief of the IRS Criminal Investigation [unit], Richard Weber, described the corruption within FIFA.

RICHARD WEBER: As the best financial investigators in the world, IRS-CI special agents exposed complex money-laundering schemes, uncovered millions of dollars in untaxed income, and discovered tens of millions of dollars hidden away in offshore accounts in countries like Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands and Switzerland. This really is the World Cup of fraud. And today we are issuing FIFA a red card.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Despite the arrests, FIFA is holding an election today to pick the next president of the organization. FIFA President Sepp Blatter is seeking re-election for the post he has held since 1998. Many commentators have predicted he will be re-elected, though some nations, including the United States, have vowed to vote against him. Earlier today, protesters in Zurich called for Blatter to step down. This is Alaphia Zoyab of the group Avaaz.

ALAPHIA ZOYAB: If Blatter doesn’t go despite giving the World Cup to a country that has slave labor, if Blatter doesn’t go despite the fact that his sponsors are starting to wobble, and if Blatter doesn’t go despite the fact that half his board has been arrested, it’s not just Blatter that needs to be axed, the FIFA Congress itself needs to be questioned.

AMY GOODMAN: This week’s FIFA arrests are just the latest scandal within the international soccer community. FIFA has also come under criticism for selecting Qatar to host the 2022 games despite the country’s poor human rights record. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, 1,200 migrant workers have died since the World Cup was awarded in 2010.

To talk more about FIFA and the soccer scandals, we’re joined by two guests. Jules Boykoff is with us, former professional soccer player who represented the U.S. Olympic soccer team. He now teaches political science at Pacific University in Oregon, joining us from Portland. And in Washington, D.C., sportswriter Dave Zirin. His latest book, Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy.

Well, Dave, you’ve been covering this for a long time. We were interviewing you in Brazil when the World Cup was there. Are you surprised?

DAVE ZIRIN: Not surprised at all, about as surprised as I’d be if I fell in a pool and emerged wet. The only thing that is surprising here is that we’re now dealing with charges that have actual teeth. That’s the only surprise. I mean, we are talking about the Enron of sports and a hubris and arrogance that is bringing down a multibillion-dollar corporation. The only difference between FIFA and Enron is that FIFA has been designated a nonprofit by the Swiss government, which makes looking at its books and finding the extent of the corruption all the more difficult.

Now, for Democracy Now! listeners and viewers, I could understand why people would look at the U.S. Justice Department and say, “Why can’t they be this aggressive towards the Wall Street bankers? Why can’t they be this aggressive towards police brutality?” And those viewers are absolutely correct. But people should also realize that this is a day that people should celebrate, because it is crippling one of the most corrupt multinationals that we have, sports or otherwise.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Dave, could you tell us a little bit about Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA? He wasn’t among those who was indicted, and today he’s running for president, for re-election for president of FIFA.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yes, Sepp Blatter, as you said, he has been in charge of FIFA for 17 years. The thing about Sepp Blatter that distinguishes him from the people who were indicted is that Sepp Blatter uses his power and influence to attain more power. He’s less interested in personal enrichment than he is in influence, and this is what has allowed him to remain free of prison these last many years. Although Sepp Blatter is also—he will not get off a plane in the United States, for fear that he will be arrested. That is true. There are also people saying that he might not attend the Women’s World Cup in Canada, for fear that he might be arrested. So, you’re talking about somebody who is effectively a stateless actor, somebody who is under investigation, who will probably be re-elected for a fifth term to head FIFA.

AMY GOODMAN: Are there any U.S. Justice Department Blatter leaks? What will happen to Blatter next, Dave?

DAVE ZIRIN: That’s a terrific question. What is very clear is that Lorreta Lynch has Blatter in her sights. That’s why she said she wanted to uproot corruption going back 20 years. That’s Blatter’s term. And let’s be clear about this, too: The U.S. Justice Department is going after FIFA very simply because the U.S. was not awarded the 2022 World Cup. If they had been, I don’t think this investigation would be taking place. And also let’s keep in mind that the Justice Department has only gone after, at this point, a small part of the world—North America, Central America, these confederations. What it says to us is that this is just the tip of the iceberg, and if some of these FIFA vice presidents begin to talk, begin to flip, if you will, to use Mafia parlance, what we could be looking at is the bringing down of Sepp Blatter and perhaps the beginning of the end of FIFA itself.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you talk about the revelations regarding the Clinton Foundation—


AMY GOODMAN: —having received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Qatari World Cup Committee—


AMY GOODMAN: —when Bill Clinton was serving as the U.S. World Cup delegate with the U.S. cup world delegation—the World Cup delegation?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yes. Not only has the Clinton Foundation received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Qatar World Cup Committee, it has also received millions of dollars from the Qatari government over the last several years. And the Clintons are going to have to answer this question, because, as you said in the intro, the Qatari World Cup construction has an absolutely monstrous body count—1,200 deaths—slavery, and even the prevention of Nepalese migrant workers of going home to Nepal after the recent earthquake to go to funerals for members of their family. Now, there is this lore that’s out there in the media that Bill Clinton was so angry after the U.S. did not get the World Cup bid for 2022, he broke a mirror, and that signaled that the United States was going to get serious about corruption in the World Cup. This is mainstream media hooey. What you see much more clearly is a very bizarre, very unexplained connection between the Qatari royal family, the Qatari World Cup bid and the Clinton Foundation, which allegedly was to facilitate less labor abuses, when in reality we have not seen that at all.

AMY GOODMAN: The Guardian has an amazing figure: Despite Qatar’s promises to improve conditions, Nepali migrants have died at a rate of one every two days in 2014 in Qatar.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, and that blood is on Sepp Blatter’s hands, as well. Even though, ironically, Sepp Blatter was not in favor of the Qatari bid, he has said that this World Cup will go on in 2022, quote-unquote, “over his dead body”—that’s his words—even though it’s 125 degrees during the summer in Qatar, even though they’re going to have to have the World Cup in 2022 in the fall, which will effectively cut into, if not completely reorganize, the European soccer leagues, which are the world’s most popular. And that’s why I think 2022, if Blatter is re-elected and if we have a situation where he’s not imprisoned, where we could be looking at the crack-up of FIFA in the years to come, because the splits are really profound. And the splits are unclear. Voting against Blatter today will not only be the United States, as you mentioned, but also the Palestinian Football Association. So, if Blatter and FIFA have done nothing else, they have brought the interests of Palestine and the interests of the United States together for once.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, could you talk about that, Dave? Your recent piece talks about the Palestinian Football Association’s bid to have the Israeli Football Association, you know, somehow sanctioned for the way it treats Palestinian football players. Could you talk about that?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yes, sanctioned or expelled. It would be the first time since apartheid South Africa that a country was asked to leave FIFA because of its practices. But this news is changing as I’m speaking to you. There are negotiations going on. Israel, from what I hear from news reports, is already relenting on what has been a blockade preventing players in Gaza from traveling freely to the West Bank. And that’s what the Palestinian Football Association is charging Israel with. They’re saying they are choking out their ability to develop soccer because of the way that they get in the way of free movement of players, free movement of coaches. And perhaps the most damning accusation towards the Israeli Football Association is that they have created and formed five or six, depending on reports, clubs in the Occupied Territories, in the settlements of the West Bank, so it’s Israeli Football Association using soccer as a way to take land that should rightfully be part of a possible Palestinian state. And they’re saying that the Israeli Football Association should be removed from FIFA unless they agree to cease these practices. And there are furious negotiations going on, as we speak, to try to head that off.

AMY GOODMAN: Russian President Vladimir Putin has come out in defense of the embattled FIFA president, Sepp Blatter. Russia is due to host the World Cup in 2018. Putin drew comparisons between the alleged attempt to oust Blatter and the charges brought against National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, who’s got political asylum in Russia, and WikiLeaks founder and editor Julian Assange. He accused the U.S. of meddling outside its jurisdiction.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] With regard to the arrests that have been made, it looks very strange, to say the least, because the arrests have been made at the request of the American side on charges of corruption. And who were charged? International officials. We can assume that some of them may have violated something. I don’t know. But it’s clear that the U.S. has nothing to do with that anyway. Those officials are not U.S. citizens. And if some event indeed happened, and it happened not on the United States territory, and the U.S. has nothing to do with that, this is yet another blatant attempt to extend its jurisdiction to other states.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, your response?


AMY GOODMAN: That was, of course, Vladimir Putin.

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, I mean, Vladimir Putin will also be having to answer, in the weeks and months to come, new allegations about the use of prison labor to create World Cup facilities in Russia. But that being said, one thing that Putin is saying which is true is that the United States Justice Department is using statutes that they—that was granted to it by law after 9/11 as a way to conduct international antiterror arrests in other countries that they have extradition agreements with. So this was a post-9/11 arrest using antiterror statutes as a way to arrest foreign officials and bring them to the United States for trial. And these antiterror statutes are so broad that if someone even tries to send money through a computer server in the United States, it dings off a server in the U.S., then the U.S. Justice Department has jurisdiction to go into another country, conduct an arrest and bring people back to the U.S. for trial. So this is the United States playing globocop. That is irrefutable.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jules Boykoff, I want to ask you—you’ve played competitively for the U.S. in international soccer tournaments. What was your response when this scandal broke with FIFA? And can you say a little about the way in which soccer has changed from the time that you played to now?

JULES BOYKOFF: Absolutely. Well, corruption in FIFA has been an open secret for a long time. I actually was a little bit surprised when the allegations came out, and I was surprised that the Justice Department would pursue this using the legal means at its disposal. Soccer has changed a lot over the years, and it’s become a big-time money enterprise, and there’s a whole lot at stake. FIFA is supposedly a nonprofit organization, yet it sure is profitable. It has holdings of about $1.5 billion. It made nearly $5 billion off the Brazil World Cup. And so, when you have that kind of money floating around, we shouldn’t be surprised about stories regarding envelopes full of tens of thousands of dollars, or we shouldn’t be surprised by stories like Chuck Blazer, the U.S. soccer honcho, who was renting an apartment at Trump Tower, not too far from you, at $18,000 a month. In fact, the guy had an apartment for his cats at $6,000 a month. So when you have that kind of money floating around, we shouldn’t be surprised that we see these kind of corrupt activities.

What’s interesting to me, too, though, beyond that, beyond the actual illegal corruption, is the corruption that’s sort of imbedded in everyday practice for FIFA. So, for example, since 1999, under Sepp Blatter, he’s distributed funds through various programs, including the Goal Project, Football for Hope, to various small countries, and that’s how he’s gained their allegiance. So your listeners and viewers might be wondering how the heck is this guy going to possibly get re-elected shortly. Therein lies the answer. He’s distributed money, he’s farmed it out, and he’s gained the allegiance from people across the world this way. So he may well get the two-thirds he needs in the first vote today. That’s 140 votes. And if he doesn’t, he may well get the majority required in the second round of voting.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, before you go, I wanted to ask you about, you know, what’s being said is Loretta Lynch’s first big move as U.S. attorney general. Now, she took this with her from being U.S. attorney here in New York. But before this, of course, the indictments against the banks were announced, or the settlement. Now, that was banks, not individuals. What about that comparison, that you see all these people hauled off, but when it comes to the banks, no one is named?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, I think it’s disturbing. And another one is the real timidity to go after local police departments, as well, by the Justice Department, given some of the cases like, for example, the one that you discussed at the top of the show that’s so horrifying, about the woman who was pregnant and brought to the ground. I think this is something that people need to demand and press the Justice Department about. And frankly, I think it is happening because FIFA is such low-hanging fruit. I mean, if you think about it, it’s not people from the United States. It looks extremely aggressive. And FIFA’s reputation has been terrible for about 20, 25 years. And so, this idea of, oh, people are actually doing something about FIFA, especially at a time when soccer is growing in popularity in the United States, this is a very, very popular, bipartisan move for the United States to do. And for the right wing, it also looks very muscular, because it’s going overseas to play globocop and make an arrest and bring people then back to the United States for trial. Yet lost in all of this is the precedent, first of all, that the U.S. is setting by going overseas on a non-terror case to make an arrest and bring people back. And what’s being lost is that you have bankers in this country who facilitated the largest theft in the history of thieves back in 2008, and yet they remain free. I think that’s something people need to continue to press and ask this Justice Department: If they’re this muscular with FIFA, why not with the Wall Street bankers?

AMY GOODMAN: Jules Boykoff, talk about the women’s cup.

JULES BOYKOFF: Well, that’s one of the sad facts of all this, is that the Women’s World Cup is going to start on June 6, and it’s getting totally overshadowed by this FIFA corruption scandal. It’s going to be a terrific tournament. Canada is hosting it. We’re going to see women from across the world play some terrific soccer in front of us. Unfortunately, they’re going to be playing on artificial turf fields, which has been a point of major disagreement from the women players who will be coming to Canada, because of the possibility of injury increasing and because it changes the game, makes it a bit faster and different than it is on grass.

But certainly, FIFA has a long history of flinging misogyny in every direction. Back in 2004, Sepp Blatter stated quite clearly, when asked how we could make the women’s game more popular in the world, he suggested that they wear tighter shorts. For real. Ten years later, he didn’t even recognize Alex Morgan, one of the top three players in the world, up for the FIFA Player of the Year award. He didn’t even recognize her at the gala banquet dinner. A couple—also, beyond that, he walked up to Abby Wambach’s wife, Sarah Huffman, and thought she was Marta, the Brazilian star who had won the FIFA award five times. So, misogyny in FIFA, sexism in FIFA runs deep. And this has been one of the sad side effects, is that we’re not talking about what’s going to be a terrific tournament.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us. Jules Boykoff teaches political science at Pacific University in Oregon, author of Activism and the Olympics: Dissent at the Games in Vancouver and London, as well as Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games. In the ’80s and ’90s, he represented the U.S. Olympic soccer team in international competition. And thanks to Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to Texas, where floods have killed many people. We’ll talk about climate change, from Texas to India. Stay with us.

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