NEW YORK — With control of the planet's most popular game, soccer, and its most important tournament, the World Cup, FIFA is arguably the most powerful organization in sports.
Yet heading into Thursday's selection of the World Cup hosts for 2018 and 2022, FIFA is under intense scrutiny following the suspension of two executive committee members who were accused of offering to sell their votes.
"FIFA acts as if they are accountable to no one," said Adam Silverstein, a lawyer who successfully sued the governing body on behalf of MasterCard, earning a $90 million settlement three years ago. Soccer "stirs the passions of people. It transcends nationality. Everybody in the world loves soccer and FIFA has a monopoly on that sport. And so they are able to exploit that."
At the same time, FIFA has taken the World Cup into the Internet age and transformed it into an event that stops day-to-day routines all around the globe. It has used the billions of dollars in profits to expand soccer's reach from beyond its traditional base in Europe and South America to become a growth industry followed by increasing numbers of people in North America, Africa, Asia and Oceania.
"I don't think we gain our power because of the World Cup, I think the power of the World Cup is achieved because of the fact that we maintain an organizational structure with 208 members all abiding by the same set of rules and agreeing to get along and do things together," said Chuck Blazer, the FIFA executive committee member from the United States. The U.S., which hosted its first World Cup in 1994, is competing against Australia, Japan, Qatar and South Korea for the right to stage the tournament in 2022.
Blazer says the global cooperation FIFA has achieved has, in turn, created unprecedented access to the World Cup for people everywhere.
"We're no longer in a world where, unless you went to Uruguay (host of the first tournament in 1930), the only other way you got to know about it was reading about it days later. You now get to see everything and participate in everything instantaneously in a worldwide network that is truly unique."
With its popularity, however, has come repeated controversy:
— Michel Zen-Ruffinen, then soccer's No. 2 official, in 2002 accused FIFA President Sepp Blatter of corruption and mismanagement in the midst of Blatter's re-election campaign. Zen-Ruffinen was soon forced to resign as general secretary, and Zurich prosecutors determined there was "no criminal behavior."
— In 2007, FIFA said it demanded the son of executive committee member Jack Warner, president of the governing body for North and Central America and the Caribbean, pay $1 million to SOS Children's Villages as repayment for selling thousands of tickets at inflated prices through the family travel agency, Simpaul, for the previous year's World Cup in Germany.
— Blatter's nephew Philippe is president of Infront Sports & Media, which has a stake in at least one of the MATCH companies that sold tickets for this year's tournament in South Africa and was criticized for methods that led to empty seats at some games.
— Executive committee members Amos Adamu of Nigeria and Reynald Temarii of Tahiti, the president of Oceania's governing body, were suspended from Thursday's vote after The Sunday Times in London alleged they offered to sell their votes for funding for soccer projects. Temarii claims he was cleared of corruption charges and penalized only for breaking confidentiality rules.
Despite allegations against Blatter, no charges against him have ever been proven — or even brought.
"Never have I tried to corrupt anyone else and I am not corruptible," Blatter said recently. "I can tell you that in the 26 years I have spent at FIFA, attempts have been made to bribe me or to influence me in some form ... but never ever have I bribed anyone and I cannot be bribed."
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