war on the rocks

Does the United States have a postwar plan for FIFA?

June 4, 2015

It all began so well. A shock and awe raid into Zurich in the early morning hours that electrified the global media. FIFA’s top lieutenants quickly captured with the enthusiastic assistance of coalition allies. Incontrovertible evidence of weapons of mass corruption. An almost cartoonish dictator-for-life whose brazen denials of reality only served to further delegitimize him. Masses of football fans around the world wildly cheering their deliverance from decades of oppression.

But now, as Commanding Attorney General Loretta Lynch gazed around her headquarters in FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s once-opulent palace, she wondered how it had all gone so wrong.

The essential problem was that somebody still had to hold together global football. And America, whose institutional foundations were built on baseball, didn’t remotely understand the cultural complexities of the game. Lynch herself, in her quieter moments, even admitted she didn’t get the offside rule. She had known it wouldn’t be easy, but all sports fans everywhere yearned to breathe free, didn’t they? Democracy is messy but even soccer hooligans want it, right?

Maybe not, Lynch acknowledged as yet another legal motion hit the sandbags full of appellate court briefs that protected her HQ. Even from before the moment that the 4th Legal Division pulled Blatter from his hidey-hole in a Zurich penthouse and forced him to resign, it had become clear that corruption was deeply ingrained at FIFA.

Indeed, Blatter’s absurd level of corruption was in fact the public face of a clever system of personal ties and the allocation of development funds to the poorer parts of the football world. This was hinted at early on when Blatter was re-elected president even as the campaign began. Even the eventual overthrow of Blatter just unleashed chaos as FIFA’s 209-member federations quickly fell back on their tribal and sectarian identities. Black market game broadcasts flowed across borders; sponsorship rights fragmented. UEFA boycotted the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Meanwhile, England’s Premier League simply declared itself sovereign and started its own World Cup with the Turkish football league that it had once hated.

Washington-based think tanks were recruited and flew their best people to Europe, where they offered scores of recommendations to improve the quality of the sport — adding shot clocks and cheerleaders and neutralizing the ridiculousness known as “extra time.” They then scrambled back to Washington to write op-eds in support of the campaign. But nothing seemed to work.

Lynch’s powerful lawyers and legions of private contractors struggled to prove the case of mass corruption that had once seemed so clear in the court of public opinion. Armies of guerrilla attorneys emerged from nowhere to harass coalition forces with an endless array of improvised legal devices. U.S. lawyers, no matter how talented, simply couldn’t be everywhere at once. Perhaps it had been a mistake to disband Blatter’s legal defense team during the early exuberance of deFIFAfication.

As the fight descended into a miasma of courtroom wrangling, the U.S.-led legal coalition fractured. The Russians had never been on board and they exulted in U.S. difficulties, occasionally hurling “I-told-you-so” amicus briefs into various UN commission hearings. More disappointingly, as the going got rough, the Swiss and other key members of the coalition began not only to pull out, but to cut their legal budgets and claim they had been misled into joining the coalition in the first place.

Now it was U.S. legal forces continuing the struggle alone. Public support at home had long since evaporated. The FIFA case was now viewed as America’s greatest judicial folly in generations. Lynch still believed that the world was better off without Blatter. But she could admit to herself, if not to Congress, that maybe they had not properly planned for the consequences of such early, catastrophic success. Even as debates began in Washington about the merits of surging additional litigation troops, she comforted herself with the understanding that at least America as a whole could learn this lesson and be better prepared for the next time.

 

Jeremy Shapiro is a fellow in Foreign Policy at Brookings. Prior to joining Brookings, he was a member of the U.S. State Department’s policy planning staff and Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs.

 

Photo credit (Blatter): Sputniktilt