Last week’s events could have been a turning point. After the United States issued indictments against 14 senior members of FIFA, the organization could have chosen to move in a different direction, toward change, toward reform, toward decency. The remaining members might have ousted the incumbent, the man who led FIFA, guardians of the world’s most popular sport, toward its current charges of corruption and deceit.
Instead, FIFA elected Sepp Blatter to his fourth term as president.
A mere four days later, the man FIFA had just endorsed abruptly announced his intention to resign. Many celebrated his impending departure, thinking that everything had changed. Yet both within and outside of the organization, nothing really had. FIFA does not have the power to change soccer itself.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice investigation, this extended run of FIFA corruption began back in 1991, shortly after West Germany were crowned winners of a World Cup that most consider the worst ever played. But in the 24 years since, soccer has brought moment after moment of joy.
Brazil has won two World Cups, giving us the likes of Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Romario. Manchester United re-emerged as the dominant team in English soccer, led by Sir Alex Ferguson and including the magnificent David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes. Over 90,000 fans watched the 1999 Women’s World Cup final, ushering in the modern era of women’s soccer and a time of unprecedented growth. Greece made a Cinderella run to win the Euros. Lionel Messi dominated the sport in a way no one has ever seen before, Cristiano Ronaldo became an underwear spokesperson in addition to a sublime goalscorer, Spain had the greatest run in international soccer history and the most high-scoring, entertaining and scintillating World Cup ever was played just last year.
For the past two decades, it’s seemed FIFA has worked hard to doom soccer. But the game is as great as it’s ever been. It might even be better than ever, full of the brilliance, joy and passion that made it so wonderful to begin with.
Just days after the FIFA indictments were made public, tens of millions of people watched the FA Cup final. They cheered Alexis Sánchez’s amazing goal and Mesut Özil’s lovely passes. They, just like the 90,000 fans in attendance, were awed by the match.
And this weekend, hundreds of millions of people will tune into the UEFA Champions League final. They’ll wonder if it’s humanly possible to stop a frontline of Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suárez. Messi will make a ball bend, seemingly in defiance of physics, and Suárez will burst through the defense, while Neymar confounds a defender with a string of stepovers. It will be an exhibition of the best forward line the world has ever seen, and Juventus will be on the other side, trying to finish their return to the top of the soccer world with the reputation of Italy on their backs. No sporting event played in 2015 will draw as many viewers.
The FA Cup final went on as if Friday’s re-election of Blatter never happened and the Champions League final will be played as if he never decided to resign. And all summer, we’ll hear about more indictments and learn further details of wrongdoing – all of which will hopefully conclude with justice handed down by the authorities – but we’ll also be treated to the Women’s World Cup, Copa America, Gold Cup and Euro qualifiers. They’ll be marvelous, just like they always have been – brilliant, fantastic and dramatic, as if FIFA’s dirty hands haven’t tarnished the sport.
FIFA can’t kill soccer. FIFA is not more powerful than a Ronaldo header. Or a Messi nutmeg. Or a Paul Pogba rocket. It will never be more powerful than 70,000 people cheering a Thomas Müller goal or Alex Morgan blazing past a defense. When Juventus tries its best to keep out Barcelona’s deadly front line, nobody will be thinking about Blatter and when the people of Sevilla flooded the streets to celebrate another Europa League title, they weren’t wondering how much Qatar paid for their World Cup.
For generations children have played the game, teenagers have been dubbed the next big thing. Stars have emerged, from Alfredo Di Stefano, to Pele, to Messi. The game has been played at Wembley Stadium and the Maracanã in the same way that it’s played in Johannesburg, Tokyo and Mexico City. At every stage of our lives, and at every level of play, soccer has consumed the world with its athleticism, skill and drama. Be it the FA Cup final, the Champions League final, the Women’s World Cup or even MLS, the game will continue to go on in the weeks after this latest hit to FIFA, and it will enthrall us all the same. It will do so all summer, and again in the fall, winter and spring. It will do so until the day we die, and it will continue for our children and our children’s children.
FIFA is a deplorable organization and those who are standing up to them with the hope of rooting out the evil are to be commended. The efforts of those to reform are not to be dismissed, nor should the ghastliness of the system be ignored. But it also shouldn’t be given false standing. While FIFA itself might be imploding, and potentially even trying to put itself back together, soccer won’t be ruined or saved. Soccer will continue.
The game is bigger than FIFA.