Soccer is known around the world as the beautiful game. Barefoot children kick a ball in crowded slums. Stadiums swell with crazed fans. Stars earn millions of dollars every year. And all of it makes clear the passion that infuses the world's most popular sport.
But the beautiful game, it is appears, is rotten at the top. Charges announced Wednesday by U.S. officials allege pervasive corruption in soccer's governing body that goes back two decades.
It infected broadcasting and marketing deals as well as bids for the quadrennial World Cup tournament. The characterization of FIFA, soccer's governing body, sounded more like a description of an organized crime family. And for many followers of their beloved sport, the reaction was: at last.
Allegations of corruption and bribery in FIFA have been widespread for years. The surprise was that someone finally was calling it out. Perhaps it had to happen first in the United States, where the sport still lacks the revered and iconic status it enjoys in the rest of the world. Fourteen people -- nine of them FIFA officials -- were named in a federal indictment that includes charges of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy.
U.S. and South American marketing executives are accused of paying more than $150 million in bribes for media and marketing rights for tournaments. The selection of the United States to host one major tournament next year followed $110 million in bribes, said Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who supervised the investigation during her recent years as U.S. attorney based in Brooklyn.
And there is more to come. The indictment referred to 25 unidentified co-conspirators, and the investigation involves law enforcement agencies in other countries. Already, Switzerland, where FIFA is based, has opened investigations into the bidding to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, won by Russia and Qatar, respectively -- bids rife with controversy and charges of bribery and vote-trading.
One of the four people charged who already have pleaded guilty, a top U.S. official-turned-informant, collected information via a key chain outfitted with a microphone, a dashing touch of James Bond in an otherwise sordid tale.
In one way, it's an old story: People in power parlaying passion for personal profit. One person is alleged to have pocketed more than $10 million in bribes. But epic individual greed has a wider cost. Imagine the good those tens of millions of dollars could have done for the kids FIFA professes to care about so strongly. Think of the fields that could have been built, the equipment purchased, the instruction delivered.
Sports is supposed to teach us about the fundamental importance of fair play. But time and again we are reminded that many of those in charge do not feel bound by that simple precept. We can't be naive any longer. Big sport is big business, with all of the same temptations to skirt the rules for personal gain. And there's nothing beautiful at all about that.