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."
Still, in her decision in MasterCard's lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska painted an unfavorable picture and accused Jerome Valcke, then director of FIFA marketing and TV and now its general secretary, of double dealing and allowing false statements to be made during negotiations with MasterCard.
MasterCard sponsored four straight World Cups before Visa took over for 2010 and 2014 in a $180 million deal. MasterCard then sued FIFA in federal court, alleging the agreement violated a contractual right of first refusal for MasterCard.
Preska wrote that while "portions of the FIFA witnesses' testimony were credible, their testimony was generally not credible." When FIFA tried to get around her ruling by filing for arbitration in the Zurich Chamber of Commerce, Preska wrote that "FIFA's latest actions demonstrate that it still does not govern itself by its slogan, 'fair play.'"
"They are effectively a self-governing body that has decided not to self-govern," said Silverstein, a lawyer with Golenbock Eiseman Assor Bell & Peskoe. "I don't know what the answer is. I think that the constituents of FIFA, all the soccer organizations that comprise FIFA need to collectively change the environment and starting with the top."
Soccer officials dismiss the complaints, maintaining that a strong governing body is needed to advance the sport.
"People are critical of FIFA, but they have done an unbelievable job of expanding the power and influence of the game and its deep connections — from youth through the highest level of the World Cup. And I don't think that there really is another sports organization that has been as successful increasing the value of the sport," Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber said.
"They're the league office. Sepp Blatter is the commissioner. They set the rules for all of us to play by, and the fact that you have a sport that's played throughout the world with millions and millions of participants and billions of fans, it requires a central body that is thinking about what is in the best interests of the sport and trying to connect all the dots amongst all those people who are engaged in it and to maximize the value for all, and at the end of the day they do a really good job of it."
FIFA exercises complete control over the World Cup, with power to override local organizers. In recent years it has twice suspended Iraq because of political interference, suspended El Salvador and Kenya because of government interference, ordered Bosnia's federation to cut its three presidents to one or face suspension and suspended Nigeria until a lawsuit against the nation's federation was dropped. Some say its rules protect allegedly corrupt soccer officials from removal.
It has resisted the use of goal-line technology, with Blatter saying "referees shall remain human" — although he slightly relaxed his view after a string of errors at this year's World Cup and FIFA decided to study proposals.
Blatter, former general secretary of Switzerland's ice hockey federation, joined FIFA as director of technical programs in 1975 and served as general secretary from 1981-98 under Joao Havelange before succeeding his boss. Having long administered the World Cup and the Olympic soccer tournament, FIFA expanded its role under Havelange by starting an Under-20 championship in 1977, an Under-17 championship in 1985 and a Women's World Cup in 1991.
Under Blatter, it added a women's Under-20 championship in 2002, a women's Under-17 championship in 2008 and the men's club championship as an annual event in 2005. Blatter also was a prominent proponent of playing this year's World Cup in South Africa and supported the decision to play 2002 in Japan and South Korea. Under his watch, FIFA expanded its committees — and expense accounts for soccer officials on them.
"Some people may be criticizing it and saying this is no way to run things, but nobody is walking away from it," said Keith Cooper, FIFA's chief of communications from 1995 until 2002, when he was fired after trying to stay neutral in the fight between Blatter and Zen-Ruffinen. "FIFA's untold wealth has been used in helping support smaller nations. They would have been pretty dumb to screw it up."
Still, he bemoans the commercialization of soccer under FIFA's influence.
"For many of us, the game has become too corporate. The soul has been taken out of it by an undue level of corporate involvement," he said. "There are so many people in the stadium on a corporate ticket and that does subdue the atmosphere to some extent."
FIFA's executive committee of 24 members makes the key decisions with guidance from Blatter, Valcke and FIFA's Zurich-based administration, which has grown from 12 in 1974 to 310 today. Minus the two suspended members, 22 will vote on the World Cup sites, with the lowest bidder eliminated each round until a majority is obtained. Just before the 2022 vote, FIFA will select the 2018 host from among England, Russia, Spain-Portugal and Belgium-Netherlands.
Blazer, a member of the executive committee since 1996 and the No. 2 official to Warner in CONCACAF, thinks FIFA has done an overwhelmingly good job in administering the sport.
"Success itself has a certain amount of envy by people in general. But I think no system is perfect," he said. "And as you get down to many different levels, there are people who make mistakes, there are people who do things wrong. But by and large if you look at the accomplishments of FIFA I'm very satisfied when I look back at the 16 years that I've been there, and the 20 years here at the confederation, that our accomplishments have been very positive.
"Does it mean it's not subject to criticism? Of course it is, and you live with that. And in the end you try to learn from those criticisms and do better," Blazer added. "But if I look at the achievements of what we've been able to do, I'm very proud of what we've accomplished."