There’s a ton of detail and plenty of names in this United States Department of Justice statement on this morning’s indictments. Nine FIFA officials, five other parties, as well as six already “convicted” people and corporations comprise the DOJ’s sweeping case against power brokers from the Western Hemisphere’s two major soccer governing bodies. But the word everyone was looking for, “Blatter,” is conspicuously absent, raising the question: Is soccer’s Teflon Don going to escape intact from the latest, greatest, FIFA scandal?
It’s hard not to read a message into the timing and location of the takedowns. Yes, it was partly convenience, with so many international FIFA figures gathering at the same Zurich hotel for the governing body’s annual congress. And no doubt, the action was partly because the U.S. has an extradition treaty with Switzerland. Maybe it would have been harder to get some of these folks on one involuntary, all-expenses paid flight if they’d been elsewhere.
What happened: Nine FIFA officials were arrested on corruption charges
But it’s notable that an investigation that has taken years should have its signature, very public moment two days before Sepp Blatter’s still inevitable-looking reelection as FIFA president, in his home city. One of the most bizarre and shocking aspects of Blatter’s deathless reign is that no matter what, he’s never fallen on his sword. Normally, we expect CEOs to take full responsibility for most any failing associated with their companies, yet Blatter, who only this week described himself as a resilient “mountain goat,” keeps his footing at the summit. All accusations against him at this point remain unproven innuendo. For all the media — and, it turns out, law enforcement — focus on FIFA, there hasn’t even been a “getting Al Capone on tax evasion” kind of moment.
To be sure, the outcome of what happens when people who aren’t working for FIFA investigate FIFA is encouraging, if the multiple arrests overnight result in convictions. And some of the figures accused are very senior, very influential and very well-known to people who follow soccer. But the casual onlookers, the mildly curious, are going to look at this and wonder how FIFA’s president didn’t know or wasn’t involved in any of this stuff. And they’re going to wonder how he’s not only keeping his job but getting resoundingly confirmed for another four years.
Here’s a law enforcement official to the New York Times:
“We’re struck by just how long this went on for and how it touched nearly every part of what FIFA did. It just seemed to permeate every element of the federation and was just their way of doing business. It seems like this corruption was institutionalized.”
It’s possible now that enormous media pressure will force him to step down, though it never has in the past. It’s also possible that when U.S. law enforcement grills the accused and puts them on trial, information might emerge that finally implicates Blatter in something dubious. But that could be years away.
And without that, this news, though undeniably major, leaves a slightly hollow feeling, like it’s a continuation of rumbling ground that’s been shaking beneath Blatter for years without toppling him. It looks like the climax to a chapter of the story where the key protagonist doesn’t even appear, where you’re left hoping the coming chapters bring resolution.