Bend (the law) like Blatter: on FIFA Corruption and International Law

by Ayaan Omar

Corruption has come to be viewed as an inescapable part of international football, enshrined in the conduct of its representative body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Once, it had been a running joke levied at FIFA officials by disgruntled football fans. This would generally occur after their country had lost a bid to host its premier event, the World Cup, or even in response to controversial refereeing decisions.

These allegations first came to a head in 2006 when British investigative journalist, Andrew Jennings, was involved in both a tell-all book and television exposé. He revealed that the then FIFA President, Sepp Blatter, was under investigation over clandestine deals which saw officials pocket over £1 million in bribes. Testimonies delivered in the documentary made further allegations regarding unjustified expenditure by FIFA officials, while the book detailed alleged vote-rigging and international cash-for-contracts deals. In 2014, Lord Triesman – the former Chairman of the English Football Association – publicly accused FIFA of behaving “like a mafia family”, intensifying the already transparent perception of FIFA as a deeply corrupt institution. It was in 2015, however, that any plausible deniability regarding these rumours began to fall apart at the seams. For the first time, numerous FIFA officials and associates were officially indicted for their role in multiple counts of bribery, collusion, and mismanagement of funds – by the United States.

An immediate question arises here, and that is one of jurisdiction. While corruption had been more or less an open secret until these indictments, there exists no international judicial system appropriate for handling the FIFA scandal. Yet this issue is very much international in character and in fact. The accused individuals hail from a dozen countries; the alleged activities, which comprise the substance of the indictments, took place in numerous countries and in multiple continents; and the individuals represented various regional associates of FIFA, such as CONMEBOL (the South American Football Confederation) and CONCACAF (the North American, Central American, and Caribbean Confederation). And this is before even touching on the fact that FIFA itself purports to represent football worldwide, identifying itself as an international organisation.

Yet it seems that someone must hold these individuals – along with FIFA and its subsidiary organisations – accountable for blatantly illegal conduct. That illicit activity occurs on an international scale cannot alone serve as grounds to dismiss the possibility of criminal charges, simply because it would be too logistically difficult and impractical. Enter the United States. By the end of May 2015, US federal prosecutors had charged fourteen people with crimes within the sphere of corruption. Rather predictably, this triggered a torrent of criticisms that the US is no stranger to: that they are too fond of their self-imagined role as ‘world police’, which sees them overstep their territorial boundaries far too often. Russian President, Vladimir Putin, kicked off the accusations by calling the US out for yet “another blatant attempt…to extend its jurisdiction to other states.” However, there is arguably scope for the US to charge non-US citizens for crimes committed outside the US both on the grounds of law and on the facts. Many US statutes explicitly provide these grounds, while US federal courts have ruled that organised crime and corruption schemes which occur outside the US can be indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO).

Of course, the broader argument is whether the US should even be allowed to assign itself this power through its own statutes and courts. On the facts themselves, many of the accused individuals owned properties and were involved in various business enterprises within the US. Supporters of the indictments have raised this to justify US interest in the case. However, the flow-on effects of the indictments may be the strongest case yet for those who support the US charging FIFA officials in an effort to target institutionalised corruption. The indictments empowered five countries – Australia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, and Switzerland – to open their own investigations into corruption among top FIFA officials, or ramp up existing investigations. Further, twelve of the indicted figures have entered guilty pleas – a small but long overdue win for those who have bemoaned FIFA’s corruption for years now.

While the argument about jurisdiction and territoriality wage on, the approach taken by the US may – in lieu of an appropriate and effective international judicial system – be the key to ensuring that FIFA recognises the rules of fair play that it purports to enforce in the beautiful game.

Ayaan Omar is a second year Juris Doctor student at UWA who is feeling equal parts relieved and disappointed that today is the last day of the Premier League, eliminating her primary excuse to procrastinate exam revision.

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