Amid Corruption in FIFA, the U.S. Steps Up to Save Soccer

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Philipp Schmidli / FIFA / Getty Images

The United States has stepped up as the world's policeman yet again, but this time no troops will be sent into harm's way. Instead of cleaning up a desert teeming with insurgents, it's cracking down on the alleged bad behavior of those running the world's most popular sport.

Among the planet's superpowers, the U.S. is probably the least passionate about soccer. The most obvious example of this is that we somehow still get away with calling it "soccer," the world be damned. It's a matter of fact that the sport is more rabidly consumed in Europe, South America, and Asia than it is here, where football that's instead played mostly with your hands rules the sports landscape, and everything else is a distant second.

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Ironically, the NFL has been criticized recently for internal investigations carried out by parties believed to be less than impartial. But if the world is looking for an impartial investigator in the FIFA scandal, look no further than the red, white, and blue. Because in America, Justice is blind — and she probably doesn't care if she can see the pitch or not.

It was the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI that probed the shady shenanigans going on behind the scenes of FIFA, an organization long rumored to be among the most corrupt in sports. Many soccer enthusiasts around the world applauded the crackdown that culminated in a raid on a luxury hotel in Zurich, where many of the suspects were staying. The D.O.J.'s ongoing investigation has already netted 14 arrests of soccer officials who were indicted this week on a host of charges including racketeering, fraud, and money laundering.

The case, which still may produce more arrests and more headlines, has all the elements of a new HBO series, complete with wire taps, allegations of suitcases stuffed with cash, bribes, payoffs, and favors connected to how soccer's governing body selected media partners for major events. According to the Washington Post, officials implied there might be further charges connected to the selection process of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

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Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that "rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted" corruption went on for years at FIFA, and that "at least two generations of soccer officials… have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of bribes and kickbacks."

The 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar were awarded amid widespread accusations of bribery. So far, more than 1,200 workers died in Qatar preparing for the World Cup, an extraordinary number that is expected to quadruple before construction there is complete. Even before the FIFA scandal broke, some wondered if Qatar, with its poor human rights record, was an ideal location for a major sporting event.

All this has unfolded under the watch of Sepp Blatter, FIFA's president and resident Bond Villain, who was inexplicably reelected Friday. Now in his fifth term at the helm* of the organization, Blatter has not been implicated in the scandal. But that may change.

One thing that has changed is that we're talking about soccer. Here. In the United States.

When the charges were announced by law enforcement officials in Brooklyn, soccer got the most attention here since Brandi Chastain ripped her shirt off when the American women won the World Cup in 1999. Despite some blips on the radar, like the U.S. men's performance in the 2012 World Cup, and a small percentage of chanting soccer fans packed into pubs around the country, the sport simply does not register with mainstream sports fans.

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And for that, soccer fans around the world should feel confident that their sport will get a fair and impartial trial here in the United States. Americans have no dog in this fight (save for maybe playing host, should Qatar be stripped of its status for 2022), they have little allegiance to the game, and they aren't aghast over the accusations lodged against the association.

Soccer fans around the globe for years were calling for an investigation into FIFA, a powerful and influential international organization. Playing the part of the world's policeman, the United States assumed a familiar role and has proven to be more adept at kicking down doors than kicking a soccer ball.

*(Update: Sepp Blatter stepped down from his role as head of FIFA Tuesday afternoon, stating, "I appreciate and love FIFA more than anything else and only want to do the best for football and FIFA and our institution." He has not accepted any culpability in the corruption investigation. Per FIFA, a new election can't happen for another four months.)

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