It is known around the world as the beautiful game. And soccer for decades has reveled in that image.
Barefoot children kick a ball in crowded slums. Stadiums swell with crazed fans. Stars earn millions of dollars every year. And all of it makes clear the passion that infuses the world's most popular sport.
But the beautiful game, it is now clear, is rotten at the top.
Charges announced yesterday by U.S. law enforcement officials allege pervasive corruption in soccer's governing body going back two decades. It infected broadcasting and marketing deals, and bids for FIFA's quadrennial World Cup tournament.
The characterization of FIFA sounded like a description of an organized crime family. And for many followers of their beloved sport, the reaction was: at last.
Allegations of corruption and bribery in FIFA have been widespread for years. The surprise was that it finally was called out by the Department of Justice, which took advantage of federal laws giving it wide latitude to go after foreign nationals who accept illegal payment paid through American banks. Perhaps it had to happen first in the United States, where soccer still lacks the revered and iconic status that makes such prosecutions politically risky in the rest of the world.
Fourteen people, nine of them FIFA officials, were named in the indictment charging racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering. U.S. and South American marketing executives are accused of paying more than $150 million in bribes for media and marketing rights for tournaments.The selection of the United States to host a major tournament next year was linked to $110 million in bribes, said Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who supervised the investigation when she was the U.S. attorney based in Brooklyn.
And there is more to come. The indictment refers to 25 unidentified co-conspirators, the investigation is ongoing, and it involves law enforcement agencies in other countries. Already, authorities in Switzerland, where FIFA is headquartered, have opened criminal investigations into the bidding to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, won by Russia and Qatar, respectively -- bids rife with charges of bribery and vote-trading.
One of the four people charged who already have pleaded guilty, a New Yorker and top U.S. soccer official-turned-informant, collected evidence via a key chain outfitted with a microphone, a dashing touch of James Bond in an otherwise sordid tale.
It's an old story: people in power parlaying passion for personal profit. One person allegedly pocketed more than $10 million in bribes. But epic individual greed has a wider cost. Imagine the good those tens of millions of dollars could have done for the kids FIFA professes to care about so strongly. Think of the fields that could have been built, the equipment purchased, the instruction delivered, the lives influenced.
Sports is supposed to teach us about the fundamental importance of fair play. But time and again we are reminded that many of those in charge do not feel bound by that simple precept.
We can't be naive about this any longer. Big sport is big business, with all of the same temptations to skirt the rules for one's own gain.
And there's nothing beautiful about that at all.