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FIFA indictment prompts hopes of soccer cleanup in Latin America

Fans on continent synonymous with soccer see scandal as herald of reform of regional organizations

Latin American fans are delighting in the arrest of the region’s top soccer officials as part of the sweeping U.S. investigation of FIFA, the sport’s governing body. Politicians, players and sports enthusiasts have celebrated the news, with many hoping the scandal will prompt a thorough cleanup of soccer federations in the Americas.

Of the 14 figures charged with corruption, 13 are from Latin America and the Caribbean. The 47-count indictment released by the U.S. Justice Department suggests a complex, transnational network specializing in bribery, tax evasion and money laundering.

For Latin American soccer fans, scandals in domestic leagues are all too familiar. Yet many have expressed surprise that FIFA, long suspected of wrongdoings but always viewed as untouchable, has finally been confronted. Reaction from the region was overwhelmingly positive. Bolivian President Evo Morales backed the move, while Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said her country “will only benefit” from the investigation.

Soccer aficionados across the region took to social media to revel in the news. “Today is a great day for this wonderful sport,” said Germán Salgado. “It was a big error for FIFA to cross the U.S. and U.K.,” said Dario Celaya.

One popular meme depicted a man shredding huge stacks of paper under the caption: “Meanwhile at FIFA.” In another meme, the governing body unveiled a new kit: a black and white striped prison shirt with handcuffs.

The news kindled hopes that the investigation would challenge corruption in the region’s soccer federations: Conmebol, the South American organization, and Concacaf, the confederation for North America, Central America and the Caribbean.

Mexican sports journalist Pablo Vázquez Rivera sees an opportunity for the scandal to trigger far-reaching change.

“There are already officials in both confederations involved, and it is possible that others will come out who are not yet known,” Rivera said.

Three countries represented by officials named in the indictment have already responded with their own legal measures. In Costa Rica, prosecutors will assess the soccer federation president, Eduardo Li, who was arrested in Switzerland. In Brazil, the government is investigating tax evasion and money laundering, while in Argentina a judge speedily issued warrants for three businessmen wanted by the United States.

The anti-FIFA rhetoric is only set to heighten, as politicians aim to look tough on corruption by focusing on soccer. For presidents like Rousseff, herself accused of graft, speaking out against the hated organization offers vital political capital.

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil sparked mass protests across more than 100 cities, and saw violent clashes between police and demonstrators. Public anger centered on the fact that the government had spent $15 billion of public money on preparations for the event.

FIFA’s reputation in the region took a further hit when it launched an inquiry into homophobic chanting from Mexican and Brazilian fans during their World Cup game. In its attempts to monitor discriminatory behavior at the tournament, FIFA took issue with the word “puto,” which translates as homosexual and is extremely derogatory. Yet fans accused FIFA of hypocrisy, since it had recently awarded the hosting of World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar, two countries with laws that many critics say discriminate against gay people. Following the uproar, the investigation was abandoned.

Opposition to FIFA has also come from high-profile figures such as Diego Maradona, the Argentine soccer great, who has criticized alleged FIFA corruption for several years. “We have a FIFA with millions of dollars and there are players in Uruguay, in Costa Rica, where I’m told they don’t earn more than $150 a month,” Maradona told Argentinian media outlets.

The widespread sense that soccer’s top bosses accumulate wealth at the expense of the game’s development was powerfully symbolized in 2012, when Brazilian soccer official José Maria Marin infamously pocketed a medal meant for a young player at an awards ceremony. Marin has a long-standing reputation for corruption in Brazil. A former soccer star turned politician, he gave several speeches praising a police commissioner implicated in torture.

The Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) reacted to Marin’s indictment by removing his name from the exterior of its headquarters.

Yet the fall of Marin and other top bosses is unlikely to quell Latin American anger. Until FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter resigns, the unpopularity of the organization is destined to continue. “Joseph Blatter, as a good captain, should sink with the boat,” said Mexican sports journalist José Ramón Fernández.

While few Latin Americans are willing to defend FIFA, some commentators have expressed unease that it has taken U.S. agencies to tackle corruption.

“Unfortunately it wasn’t our police who caught them, but somebody had to catch them,” said a former Brazilian soccer star and current senator, Romário de Souza Faria.

“It seems that just like in the movies, once again the United States is the hero,” Vázquez Rivera noted sarcastically.

Others were impressed by the handling of the case.

“I think the United States did it in the right way, respecting the authorities in Switzerland as they had to work together to set up the proper legal framework to proceed with the arrests,” said soccer industries graduate Miguel Solórzano, a Mexican sports center manager and undergraduate from the soccer industries program at Liverpool University in the United Kingdom. “The United States is protecting their laws as some of them were violated by FIFA members in terms of corruption and fraud. I like how they handled it.”

Some Latin Americans have joined Russian President Vladimir Putin in questioning U.S. motives. Putin said the indictments were “another blatant attempt by the United States to extend its jurisdiction to other states.”

A few Latin American commentators have suggested that the investigation is a first step toward U.S. domination of the soccer world, or that disappointment at the failure of its 2022 World Cup bid was the true catalyst for U.S. action.

Others have questioned why the investigation is centered almost exclusively on the Americas. Since U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said FIFA’s corruption was “rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted,” it would make sense to launch broad investigations in Europe, Africa, or Asia.

Yet even the specter of U.S. interventionism has not tempered the atmosphere. In a region of endemic corruption, where soccer assumes near-religious importance, hopes for the future are at an all-time high.

“I hope this has positive effects and these events allow the United States to definitively clean up our soccer,” Romario said.

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