The 2018 World Cup is about to end. But the case that unveiled a massive criminal conspiracy involving the international soccer organization FIFA is still ongoing.
On July 10, the same day France beat Belgium 1 to 0 to advance to the final, a Florida-based sports marketing company pleaded guilty in a New York federal court to criminal charges related to millions of dollars worth of bribes paid to soccer officials across the Americas.
Prosecutors alleged that the company, Imagina US, coordinated in 2012 with another sports marketing firm, Traffic USA, to bribe Jeffrey Webb, who at the time held high-ranking posts in FIFA as well as in the Caribbean Football Union (CFU).
Traffic had promised Webb a $3 million bribe for help obtaining the rights to market and broadcast qualifying matches for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups that were controlled by the CFU's members. Imagina admitted to cutting a deal with Traffic to pay half of the $3 million, and to share the costs and revenues of marketing and broadcasting those matches.
Imagina also pleaded guilty to bribing soccer officials in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica in exchange for marketing and broadcast rights for World Cup qualifying matches controlled by the FIFA-affiliated national soccer associations in those countries.
A press release from the US attorney's office notes that many of the individuals involved in the bribery had previously pleaded guilty to similar schemes, making Imagina only the latest in a long string of soccer bigwigs taken down by US authorities since the 2015 unveiling of a years-long probe into corruption within FIFA.
"The government’s investigation is ongoing," the press release adds.
Journalist Ken Bensinger lays out the origin and development of the sprawling case in a new book released on the eve of the opening match of this year’s World Cup, "Red Card: How the U.S. Blew the Whistle on the World's Biggest Sports Scandal."
The rigorously researched narrative recounts in rich detail how US law enforcement took on some of soccer's most powerful figures, and how they ended up handling the investigations and prosecutions as an organized crime case -- with FIFA itself as the criminal organization.
Trump and Russia
The case got its start in a somewhat unlikely place. In 2010, an agent of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) looking into Russian organized crime groups got a tip that Russia seemed to be trying to improperly influence FIFA officials to vote in support of the country’s ultimately successful bid to host the 2018 World Cup.
That tip came to the FBI through former British spy Christopher Steele, who later became famous for authoring a document containing sensational allegations about supposed ties between Donald Trump and the Russian government.
In 2011, a crusading agent of the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) with a lifelong passion for soccer got involved in the FBI’s case after discovering that a powerful American FIFA official named Chuck Blazer hadn’t paid taxes in nearly two decades.
Working together, the IRS agent and the FBI team began gathering evidence of systematic corruption within FIFA stretching back decades.
Many of the schemes were similar to the one described above involving Traffic and Imagina: bribes in exchange for marketing and broadcast rights. But there were other forms of graft as well.
Blazer, for instance, bought luxury properties and paid for food, travel and gifts using FIFA’s money. And he accepted illicit payments in exchange for his vote on important FIFA decisions, like the choice to award South Africa the right to host the 2010 World Cup.
The victims of this illicit activity, Bensinger told InSight Crime, are the millions of fans and players of the sport around the world.
“You have all these corrupt officials taking money that would otherwise go to the game,” Bensinger said. “It’s supposed to go to pro teams that need money to build better stadiums. It’s supposed to go to youth teams, and to literally buying balls and cleats, and building fields for kids to play on ... All those things get cheated and robbed of resources when there's corruption."
Crossing the Goal Line
In late 2011, US investigators confronted Blazer and offered him a choice: cooperate on the FIFA probe or face prosecution for felony tax evasion. Blazer chose to cooperate, and became what Bensinger calls a “tour guide” of soccer corruption.
As Blazer walked the investigators through how the graft schemes worked and who was involved, they began to see how the global network of soccer officials and marketing firms resembled a criminal organization.
“In fact," Bensinger writes, "they increasingly felt, it looked just like the mafia.”
Over the next several years, authorities caught up to other top FIFA officials and marketing executives involved in the corruption. They flipped more key figures, who in turn provided evidence implicating even more of the international soccer elite.
Finally, in May 2015, the investigation culminated in the public announcement of an indictment naming 20 defendants, six of whom had already pleaded guilty.
The revelation of the criminal charges set off an international firestorm. Then, in December 2015, authorities made public a superseding indictment that expanded the number of suspects charged, and explained in further detail why prosecutors considered FIFA to be a criminal enterprise.
Bensinger quotes the indictment in the book: “The corruption of the enterprise became endemic.” When scandals forced certain officials out of the organization, other crooked actors swiftly took their place.
Many of the defendants pleaded guilty. But in November 2017, three top FIFA officials took their chances at trial. A month later, two of the three were convicted. They are scheduled to be sentenced next month.
Has the exhaustive investigation and prosecution of some of the most powerful figures in soccer helped clean up the sport?
Bensinger told InSight Crime that FIFA has taken some positive steps in the wake of the scandal. But, he said, the organization hasn’t gone far enough.
"I think it's folly to expect that by arresting a bunch of people you solve the cultural problems of the institutions,” he said. “This is sort of the splash of cold water on the face, but what has to come next is the hard work of really creating a new, less corrupt culture."
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Bensinger pointed out that FIFA has long operated in an opaque fashion, and that tradition of non-transparency will be difficult to change.
“It’s very hard for them culturally to understand that there’s an expectation that they provide more information, that they’re more open about what they do,” he said.
As for whether the revelations of pervasive graft in soccer will significantly damage the game’s immense global popularity, Bensinger thinks the chances of that are slim.
"I think there are people who are going to be turned off from the sport, but they're dwarfed by the people who love it anyway,” he said. “That's the thing about soccer: Even with all the filth, people love the sport and want to keep watching it."