Martin Rickett / PA Wire / AP

For North America soccer chiefs, FIFA scandal strikes close to home

Analysis: Regional soccer body braced for aftershocks after its self-styled reformer is implicated in racketeering

As Jeffrey Webb, the president of North America's soccer federation was ushered out of a luxury Zurich hotel and into an unmarked police car Wednesday morning, shielded from cameras by a hotel bed sheet, he may not have been aware how to close to home the source of his downfall was. 

But even as Swiss police led him away, powerful agencies from a country within Webb’s own geographic region were preparing to unseal a dramatic indictment that would implicate both him and his predecessor Jack Warner, along with a number of high-level co-conspirators, on charges of racketeering, wire fraud and bribery. 

After years of corruption allegations, resulting mainly in halfhearted internal inquiries and strategic resignations that curtailed those investigations, world soccer’s governing body FIFA had finally been confronted by a concerted effort from what at one time would have seemed the unlikeliest of sources: Brooklyn, New York.

And yet, on another level, the inquiry, originally led by Loretta Lynch in her position as U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, before expanding to include the IRS, FBI and international partners, makes absolute sense. On the playing field, the U.S.’ reputation as a soccer country may be on something of a slow burn, but in a modern international game where money is king, the country is, as Webb put it to this writer just a couple of months ago, a “phenomenal market.” And the FIFA indictments suggest multiple ways in which the pursuit of that market’s riches first enticed, then implicated, several high profile executives, with Webb allegedly only one expensive gatekeeper to it.

Webb’s personal fall from grace is a particularly tough blow for the federation, known as CONCACAF, which seemed to have turned a corner under his direction. After the scandal and resignation of his predecessor Jack Warner in 2011, amid allegations of vote buying, Webb was happy to be styled as a reformer, fond of using the word “transparency” when referring to both his own federation and FIFA.

And the momentum he seemed to be generating spread to the field. Less than a year ago, CONCACAF teams were being hailed as the surprise package of the World Cup. Out of the four qualifiers from the federation for North and Central America and the Caribbean, only Honduras failed to get out of its group, as fans of Costa Rica, Mexico and the U.S. came to represent an unlikely mutual appreciation society in Brazil. There were even chants of “Con-ca-caf! Con-ca-caf!” in the stands, and talks of a possible additional qualifying berth for the federation at future tournaments.

Off the field, Webb proved to be an adept public operator — calm and measured where Warner was prone to combative and controversial statements. Webb oversaw a new CONCACAF ethics policy in June of last year, and also oversaw a high profile partnership with the South American federation CONMEBOL to host a special centennial edition of that continent's championship, the Copa America, scheduled for next year. He headed FIFA’s anti-racism committee and had called for tougher penalties for offending clubs and federations, and had also called for the publication of Michael Garcia’s report on the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding processes.

As recently as a few days ago, CONCACAF was announcing further memos of understanding with fellow federations that aimed to share practice and strategize within Webb’s vaunted model of transparency and devolved regional responsibility. It revived an ongoing conversation that saw the former Cayman Island banker as a possible ultimate successor to Sepp Blatter as FIFA president — a sober unity candidate unlikely to carry the same baggage as some European contenders.

Webb may be considerably more weighed down as a result of this week’s developments. According to the U.S. Department of Justice indictment, rather than reform CONCACAF, after the departure of Warner and his equally disgraced general secretary, the American Chuck Blazer, Webb carried on a culture of graft and kickbacks, to enrich himself at the cost of eager sports marketing companies who needed his contacts and approval to protect their market share.

And what was to have been the crown jewel of his reign so far — the centennial Copa America in 2016 — may turn out to be one of the burdens that brings Webb down. The inquiry is focusing on several tournaments under CONCACAF jurisdiction, including next year’s Copa America, which has already secured a number of sponsors likely to be embarrassed by their commercial partner’s name being dragged through the mud. 

On Wednesday multiple parties throughout the region were scrambling to distance themselves from the arrests — though only the relatively lowly NASL, the U.S.’ only division two professional league, took direct action beyond terse expressions of concern in press releases. The league suspended its chairman Aaron Davidson, president of Traffic Sports USA, the U.S. arm of a Brazilian sports marketing company known for its aggressive pursuit of market share and for being at the forefront of the controversial model of third party player ownership — crudely put, buying “shares” in players, like racehorses. 

Davidson, whose group still owns the NASL team Carolina Railhawks, and which had previously financially propped up several NASL teams in the young league, had also been indicted as part of the corruption charges. Under his chairmanship, the league has made great public virtue of their free-market model compared to the closed single entity franchise model of MLS, and Davidson had set a bullish tone for the project that had alarmed some team managers within the U.S. soccer landscape. Traffic’s dollars may still help prop up the league, but at this point they’re too tainted for the NASL to continue their association.

Yet further associations throughout the game are likely to emerge within the course of the investigation. Webb and others were partly implicated by a previous round of defendants, including Warner’s adult sons, and Blazer (who helped the FBI bug meetings in a bid to reduce his own pending sentencing), and it is likely that many of the most recent round of indictments will see those charged seek their own lenient sentencing by cooperating and implicating others in turn.

Most popular speculation in the soccer world is focusing on whether that will include Blatter, whose coronation for a fifth term as FIFA president still seems assured this Friday but who must face up to a best case scenario of governing a hollowed out and discredited executive. And of course, many fans, including those in the U.S., want to know if the Swiss criminal investigation into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids might yet force a revote from a defiant FIFA.

Blatter and his voting bloc in FIFA, which has traditionally included the African, Asian and South American federations, may ride out the immediate storm, but the U.S. actions may yet force the hand of others within FIFA who have long complained about the status quo without having the numbers or will to alter it. In particular, UEFA, the European federation, may be outnumbered when it comes to circumventing Blatter’s power base, but as the home of the world’s most popular domestic leagues (with lucrative TV deals worldwide including in the U.S.), they could withdraw cooperation with the world body, even if that involved temporary withdrawal from its showpiece tournaments to force change.

And of course there are the sponsors, and here, again, the U.S. is a powerful player. Visa, Coca-Cola and Budweiser are just three of the brands expressing concern about the revelations and with the sport suddenly thrust center stage in popular U.S. consciousness, those companies face a trade off between the proven lucrative value of their association with World Cups, and the current damning consumer mood.

It was understandable that the U.S. government agencies would frame Wednesday’s announcements as victories of principle, but it may yet be the commercial interests within the “phenomenal market” that hold the balance of power in mandating real change in FIFA. 

In the meantime, with more revelations to come, and the digging starting at home, the CONCACAF region is bracing itself for more aftershocks.

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