A Level of Discomfort – US Soccer and the FIFA Scandal

A Level of Discomfort – US Soccer and the FIFA Scandal

By Matt Hawkins – 

A shower of dollar bills and twitter exploded. You’ve probably seen Blatter recoil in slow motion as British comedian Simon Brodkin completed his act of theatrical protest. Don’t worry, they weren’t added to Blatter’s pocket—the bills were fake. The press conference at which the foregoing occurred, was the first time Sepp Blatter has appeared in public since announcing his resignation on June 3, only five days after the FIFA scandal arrests on May 27. FIFA’s Executive Committee had met earlier in the day, and agreed upon a February election date for the next FIFA presidential election.

You might, however, have missed last week’s US Senate subcommittee hearings into “Examining the Governance and Integrity of International Soccer”. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, always unlikely to show up, refused his invitation. More surprising, so did US Soccer Federation (USSF) President Sunil Gulati, a member of FIFA’s ExCo since 2013. In his place, Secretary General and CEO of USSF Dan Flynn fielded the questions.

Also providing testimony were Michael Hershman, CEO of the Fairfax Group and former member of the Independent Governance Committee at FIFA, Sunjeev Bery, representing Amnesty International, and investigative journalist Peter Jennings.

Blatter being showered with money - literarily

Blatter being showered with money – literarily

Jennings’ testimony went straight to the heart of the matter: “In August 2011 I gave [CONCACAF executive committee members, including US Soccer] financial and other documents that America’s Chuck Blazer hid from the fans and the public. … If America’s soccer leaders had taken action, Blazer and Warner would have been in jail, Blatter seeking asylum in Zimbabwe and the 2022 World Cup [would have been] hosted by the USA, not some graveyards in the Gulf.”

At ease in the surroundings as the special guest, Jennings turned the spotlight onto the USSF: “US Soccer had to know that Blazer and his fellow crook Jack Warner from Trinidad, with the approval of Blatter, were looting regional football and evading rightful taxes. But they looked away.”

USSF – Free of Corruption?

In his opening testimony, Flynn described his fifteen years at USSF, the structure of the organization, its success at international soccer, and how US Soccer has backed reform at FIFA including Prince Ali’s presidential bid in the organization’s last election. “US Soccer believes good governance and good leadership at FIFA is paramount and more important to the sport than hosting any individual World Cup.”

While the intention of the committee had been to look at the corruption in international soccer, Gulati’s absence and Jennings’ testimony brought the inaction of the USSF into question.

“So it is my understanding Mr Flynn,” Senator Blumenthal began, “that you had no knowledge of this corruption before May of this year … is that correct? You had no knowledge?”

Flynn responded, “That is correct. … there were moments, that I would describe, a level of discomfort that I would not participate. I would get myself out of any situation that offered me a level of discomfort.”

Carefully wording his testimony for a litigious US culture, Flynn avoided any suggestion that current members of the USSF were aware of or participating in the corruption. Flynn’s defense will be repeated. Around the world, representatives of organizations are ducking out of the way, claiming ignorance and a lack of the concrete evidence needed to act.

The USSF, Flynn argues, only had two options when faced with this “level of discomfort” about FIFA: either continue to operate within the structure, which had until now included avoiding asking questions about how its executives conducted themselves; or to leave the organization entirely, which would “have far ranging consequences for the business model of soccer in [the US].”

Jennings aired his frustrations, “You know what, the US Soccer Federation has been cowardly … where was America?” His concerns about the USSF have deepened and he has since conducted an interview with online US soccer program Soccer Morning. “I can guess why Gulati wasn’t there,” Jennings muses, “its because he doesn’t want to answer any questions about the wonderful lifestyle he has and his dreams of having any power at FIFA by staying with the Sepp Blatter way of doing things.”

Blatter has now announced that FIFA will be setting up yet another committee to look into reform. The USSF is likely to want to position itself as a key player.

The success of the Women's World Cup in Canada has even further help the growth of soccer in North America

BC Place during the Women’s World Cup – The success of the Women’s World Cup in Canada has even further help the growth of soccer in North America

Whether or not FIFA takes the USSF on as a major player is another matter. It is certain that the US represents one of the most important growing audiences for soccer worldwide. Major League Soccer (MLS) is gaining economic clout. More impressively, the recent television audience for the Women’s World Cup Final hosted in Vancouver, Canada totaled more than 22 million people in the US, more than any other soccer game in history (and better than game seven of the 2014 World Series). Senator Klobuchar used the senate subcommittee hearings as an opportunity to question the funding inequality within the USSF between the men’s and women’s games. The growing popularity of the women’s game, may ironically, pull it into the web of soccer corruption.

Traffic Sports 

It is interesting that, none of the questions by the US Senators focused on the relationship between the USSF and the shifting media landscape of US soccer. Traffic Sports is one of the most important media companies for soccer in the Americas, and owns the broadcast rights for many international tournaments in both CONCACAF and CONEMBOL. Six people from Traffic and partnered businesses were indicted by the FBI—much of the scandal concerns transfers of payments made by Traffic and partners to FIFA and CONCACAF officials.

Traffic Sports was involved in the creation of the North American Soccer League (NASL), the second division on the USSF’s pyramid (for more on NASL’s relationship with Traffic here). A major source of conflict between the NASL and first division MLS is the competition between its media arm Soccer United Marketing (SUM) and Traffic. Both are chasing control over the media landscape of soccer in the Americas (and, through the tournaments, the revenue brought in by commercial sponsors).

Traffic Sports set up the NASL, and even operated some of the teams.

Traffic Sports set up the NASL, and even operated some of the teams.

It remains to be seen if anyone is actually serious about ‘reforms’ in the fallout of the FBI investigation, or if there will be further ramifications for officials within USSF and CONCACAF. But this has always been about money, and that is a priority not about to diminish in the world of soccer.

On point, Senator Blumenthal asked Amnesty’s representative Mr. Bery, “would you agree that American corporate sponsors have turned a blind eye to the alleged human rights abuses and potential deaths of migrant workers? Should they have known, did they know, should they have done something?” Jennings interrupts, “you just said it, I can’t cap that, the answer is of course yes.” Bery, saved from saying the difficult truth, provides a more diplomatic response calling on everyone, including the sponsors, to “start taking action” on the human rights and labour abuses in Qatar.

Calling for boycotts by sponsors of FIFA until it reforms, may be crediting companies more power and influence than they have. We should be asking major sponsors, “what did you know and why didn’t you act sooner?” But most important we should ask, “What are you going to do now that you know?”

Matt Hawkins is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Carleton University, Ottawa. His research covers the intersections of football and politics in Argentina. His dissertation focuses on the Return to Boedo campaign by supporters of Club Atlético San Lorenzo de Almagro. He writes infrequently on supporter culture for stonymondayriot.com and can be followed on twitter @mhawkin2.