Belfast Telegraph

America emerging as the saviours of the beautiful game

By Ian Herbert

God bless America. It wasn't even supposed to be their game and that's why nobody expected what we saw yesterday - the Feds metaphorically smashing through the Fifa door with their arrest warrants and their declaration that "if you touch our shores with your corrupt enterprise you will be held accountable".

There was certainly a cheesiness about the clip-art footballs they used in the Justice Department press conference room to illustrate the dimensions of this war they are waging - and in their description of this criminality as "the World Cup of fraud and we are issuing Fifa the red card".

But it was none less than Loretta Lynch, the Attorney General of the United States of America, standing up there to say what we have waited 20 years to hear someone say: that the game is up for Fifa.

"They took a soccer enterprise and turned it into a criminal enterprise," she said.

To hear the details pour out - the $11m in unreported income trousered by Charles 'Chuck' Blazer, former Fifa ExCo member, the £110m in bribes just to host the 2016 Copa America - was to wish that the Americans had also got their hands on the investigation into how Russia and Qatar got the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

The European soil stuff belongs to the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland.

Inhale this fresh air of a liberating spirit while you can, though, because it will not be long before we are plunged back into the foul stench of Fifa once more.

For a sense of how deep that particular slough is, you only had to hear the organisation's director of communications Walter de Gregorio talk, a few hours after 14 of his colleagues had been marched away from the five-star Baur au Lac hotel and placed under arrest.

"How can you say he should step down?" De Gregorio said to the suggestion that 24 years of bribery had not happened on Sepp Blatter's watch.

"No. The president is not involved. Of course he is the head of Fifa but he is not involved. So how can you say he has to step down? He is the president. And if the 209 members re-elect him he is the president for the next four years."

To hear this incantation from De Gregorio was to know how much it will take to rip out the heart of an institutionally toxic organisation like this.

"Two no's for you: No. No," he replied to the question of the Russia and Qatar World Cups being in doubt.

Fifa, he observed in the high point of denial, "was the damaged party". Blatter and the men who do his talking for him always find enough friends to ward crises off.

Remember Jack Warner's threatened "tsunami" of allegations against Blatter at the same stage in the Fifa cycle four years ago? Perhaps not, because Blatter breezed to re-election.

As Russia, one of Blatter's winners, predictably enough became another of his cheerleaders late last night, condemning what it described as an "illegal extra-territorial implantation of American law", you sensed that this fight calls for those who can hurt Fifa commercially to share the Justice Department's moral indignation and drive to act.

Organisations like the BBC and ITV, for example, whose vast sums of money for broadcast rights for Russia and Qatar will line the pockets of an organisation whose officials - we now know for sure - have been accepting bribes since the 1990s.

The chances of either the BBC or ITV boycotting Fifa are precisely nil, though, because they consider the World Cup Final audience - the largest in any four-year cycle - too much to give up. And because they know that if they sacrifice the chance to show it, there will be someone else to take their place.

The same lack of unity also exists among advertisers, despite the superficial noise about Visa and Adidas entering the public realm on the subject of Fifa.

And it is the yet same story for individual football associations.

The Conservative MP Damian Collins reiterated his belief - also articulated by the BBC's Gary Lineker - that England should boycott Russia and Qatar.

But the FA know that they would be in a minority, in a gesture which would be financially disastrous.

Supporters won't be enamoured with a boycott either because the indignation doesn't run that deep for many. It would require the entire European continent to withdraw to inflict the mildest cut on Blatter.

You only have to go back to February to see how his organisation gets a hold on anyone who might buck the system.

The American TV networks Fox and NBC were playing merry hell at that time about the fact that the 2022 Qatar World Cup had been moved to the winter, clashing with the NFL season.

It was a dispute that look destined for the courts - and Fifa being sued by the two companies whose $1billion makes them the biggest contributors to the World Cup purse.

And, what do you know, Fox and NBC's Spanish language Telemundo operation were suddenly and quietly awarded broadcast TV rights to the 2026 World Cup, too - without any bidding taking place and to the raw fury of other American broadcasters.

Nothing illegitimate; just evidence of how Fifa can head off any storm.

It was, says Richard Welbirg of the TV Sports Market publication, as categorical a piece of evidence as you will find that the threat of a court appearance has the potential to embarrass Fifa and make them act.

A good job for football then, that America has emerged so spectacularly on its side.

Belfast Telegraph


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