Wednesday’s arrests raise questions about some figures who are deeply involved in the soccer business in the United States
Chuck Blazer, the former general secretary of Concacaf, is said to have turned informant on Fifa. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images
Wednesday 27 May 2015 16.09 EDT Last modified on Thursday 28 May 2015 10.37 EDT
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So, in the most extraordinary fashion, the United States has finally found itself at the epicenter of the soccer world.
The star of one of the biggest days in American soccer history was not, however, a talented young Californian striker or a brave goalkeeper from New Jersey, but US attorney general Lorretta Lynch and her team from the Department of Justice and the FBI.
The department indicted 14 people on charges which include money laundering, wire fraud and racketeering in a remarkable 161 page document which details a series of kickbacks and bribes. Seven of those 14, gathered in Zurich for this week’s Fifa congress, were arrested by Swiss law enforcement in a dawn raid and could face extradition to the United States.
“They were expected to uphold the rules that keep soccer honest and to protect the integrity of the game, instead they corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and to enrich themselves,” said Lynch in a punchy address.
FBI v Fifa. Finally, somebody has had the determination and the means to take on the corruption in football and hold them to account, and it turns out to be a government department in a country that has long kept its distance from the global game.
Fifa corruption arrests: key questions answered
But for American soccer this is not quite as simple as fighters for justice and truth taking on those who steal money from kids who just want to play ball.
The two decades of corruption outlined by the Grand Jury document, includes plenty of cases that raise questions about people who have long been involved in the soccer business in the United States and surrounding region.
The two domestic bodies most directly impacted by the developments are the North American Soccer League and the United States Soccer Federation.
For the NASL, the second division league in the US club system, the link is direct. The indicted Aaron Davidson, an American citizen, who along with his company Traffic Sports, features heavily in the accounts of bribes and kick-backs, was the driving force behind the creation of the league in 2009.
It was Davidson who pushed hard for a split in the United Soccer Leagues, which was then the second tier of club competition. It was Traffic who ran the commercial activities of the nascent league. Traffic, with US headquarters in Miami but with Brazilian owners, also took on direct ownership of several teams in the new NASL. Although they now only own the Carolina Railhawks, it was their money that kept teams such as the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, the Minnesota Stars and Atlanta Silverbacks alive.
Now that Davidson and Traffic have been accused of paying bribes, the NASL have acted. “In light of the ongoing investigation announced by the US Department of Justice on Wednesday, the North American Soccer League’s Board of Governors has suspended Chairperson Aaron Davidson, along with all business activities between the league and Traffic Sports, effective immediately. Commissioner Bill Peterson will serve as acting Chairperson,” the league said in a statement.
With Traffic’s Brazilian parent company in deep trouble as a result of Wednesday’s revelations, the NASL could well lose the support of an organisation which has stood behind it through its growing pains. For some in the league who tired of Davidson’s antagonistic approach and grandiose plans, the loss of Traffic may not be entirely unwelcome however.
Most of the allegations revealed on Wednesday surround Traffic’s relationship with Concacaf – the regional governing body for the sport, whose territory includes the United States, Canada and Mexico along with Central America and the Caribbean.
US Soccer is part of Concacaf and indeed it was another American, Chuck Blazer, who was the body’s general secretary throughout the years in which disgraced Trinidadian Jack Warner ruled the region. In a reminder that Americans in Fifa are by no means exclusively on the side of the fighters for truth, the Justice Department says that Blazer has pleaded guilty to a lengthy series of corruption charges, while reports have suggested the New Yorker cooperated with the FBI investigation.
Concacaf’s current president, Jeffrey Webb, is a Cayman Islands banker, educated in Florida and with at least one residence in Georgia. Webb has made much of reform and transparency. But that talk risks looking rather hollow in the wake of allegations he took a series of bribes, and he was among those arrested in Zurich. The body now risks losing its second straight president to a corruption scandal. It is hardly the kind of organisation that US Soccer, trying to grow the sport in the United States, would ideally want to belong to.
Geography and history have left the United States to work in a structure which has an in-built majority from Caribbean federations, several of which have been implicated in scandals. It has meant, for US Soccer president Sunil Gulati, trying to advance his federation’s interests in a region that has long been riddled with intrigue and dubious dealings.
The advantage of being in Concacaf for the US is a relatively easy qualification passage to the World Cup but the downside includes having to work within a business environment dominated by the likes of Traffic and Davidson and a political structure ruled by the likes of Webb and his Jamaican side-kick ‘Captain’ Horace Burrell.
And there is the danger of the fallout from this latest affair impacting on the soccer business in North America. According to Lynch, $110m of planned bribes were connected to deals around next year’s planned Copa America centenary tournament, which is to bring together North and South American nations in a single tournament for the first time. Around $40m of those bribes had already been paid, said the DOJ indictment. This for a tournament which is to be held at stadiums across the United States with major network television coverage and mainstream sponsors.
Major American companies, such as Sprint, have already signed up to Concacaf’s Gold Cup this summer, with Delta Airlines the most recent to join before the latest scandal broke – they surely didn’t expect the name of Concacaf, which they have attached themselves to, to be dragged through the mud once again.
Gulati has long, perhaps understandably, practiced ‘realpolitik’ in both Concacaf and Fifa but with both organisations now teetering from the latest blows, there no longer appears much to gain from such an approach.
The US Soccer chief might be well advised to take some inspiration from Loretta Lynch and engage in some forthright, straight-talking. He might even find himself on that rarest of places to find in the soccer world – the moral high ground.