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FIFA Gets a Red Card

With her stunning assault on FIFA, Loretta Lynch became a global rock star, a rare accomplishment for a U.S. attorney general. The indictment and arrest of so many of soccer's governing cardinals gathered in Switzerland, and the sweeping charges of corruption against the sport's ruling regime, seemed a quintessentially American—Wilsonian, even—move to make the world safe for clean sportsmanship.

As often happens when the word goes out that the Yanks are coming, people around the world greeted the news with a combination of grudging admiration and shame. The Feds' energetic move, after all, stood in vivid contrast to the usual fatalism with which people in many other countries accept rampant corruption in the management of sports and in a global governing body in which more than 200 nations have equal say.

Indeed, in many countries with a wobbly rule of law, the gig of running a sports federation with a seat at the international FIFA or Olympic table is seen as among the most profitable—not to mention glamorous—forms of public patronage. Recall how Saddam Hussein's son Uday ran Iraq's soccer federation and Olympic Committee.

When the United States moved against the FIFA "sportocracy," Vladimir Putin didn't approve, but leading politicians, media outlets, soccer fans and former stars in much of the world applauded. It didn't preclude a majority of African and Asian nations from re-electing Sepp Blatter as FIFA's president for a fifth term last Friday. And now, given that Blatter announced his plan to resign days later and his second-in-command Jerome Valcke is under intensifying legal scrutiny, further changes at the hands of the U.S.-led coalition are still looking likely.

Indeed, three realities now seem inescapable: FIFA's days of brazen corruption are numbered; the 2022 World Cup will not take place in Qatar; and, any appreciation for the U.S. role in reforming FIFA will prove short-lived.

Blatter's replacement to head the organization will have no choice but to lead a thorough housecleaning and reform effort. The reason for this is that, in addition to the Americans' sudden interest in how the game is governed and the understandable concerns of corporate sponsors such as Visa and Coca-Cola, the powerful European leagues, united under the UEFA confederation, have long opposed Blatter as well. And they will now be emboldened by the U.S. legal assault to consider their own measures against FIFA, absent meaningful changes.

They don't control a majority of votes within the world body (which allots Malawi an equal say as Germany), but the Europeans do control the financial resources and top talent without which FIFA's World Cup would cease being the premier sporting and entertainment event on earth.

If the European leagues (which, significantly, now include Americans owning major clubs such as Manchester United) banned their players— the best from around the world—from playing in international matches and tournaments put on by FIFA, the landscape of world soccer would undergo a seismic shift.

As this weekend's European Champions League final between Italy's Juventus and FC Barcelona will illustrate, the inter-European club rivalries attract a massive global audience and feature a higher quality of play than do World Cups. The Europeans could easily cut FIFA's corrupt regime out of the game if they wanted.

The selection of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup was never going to survive the laugh test. Whatever improprieties surrounded the selection of Russia for 2018, that was a defensible choice on the merits—Russia is the largest nation with a strong soccer pedigree never to have hosted a World Cup.

Qatar, on the other hand, is basically a city-state with no soccer heritage in a place that would require moving the summer tournament to late in the fall, cutting into the business of European soccer leagues. In the absence of bags full of cash, lots of cash, awarding the tournament once deemed so big that South Korea and Japan had to share it to Qatar was always going to look absurd.

Either way, that 2022 World Cup is headed to the Americas—but not necessarily to its most deserving home, the United States. Even many honest FIFA delegates in some parts of the world will find it politically difficult to reward the United States for taking the lead in rightly stripping Qatar of the cup. Instead, Mexico could host an unprecedented third cup as a compromise choice in the Americas unless Colombia can pull together a strong bid on short notice.

Not long ago, people in much of the world were frustrated that Americans either mocked or ignored the world's sport. Now it's become the sport of choice for suburban American kids, a coveted business opportunity for U.S. multinationals and a TV franchise boasting higher domestic ratings than any sport other than our homegrown football.

Many people around the world will find this new alternative reality—of Americans caring so much about soccer that we become a contender on the pitch and a leading voice on how the sport is to be run worldwide— even more frustrating. For the past half-century, soccer has been the only form of truly global pop culture not dominated by the United States.

If nothing else, the attorney general's press conference last week made clear that this will soon change—that the Yanks are coming.

An earlier version of this article appeared on CNNOpinion


Andrés Martinez is New America's editorial director for Future Tense. He is also the editorial director of Zócalo Public Square, and professor of practice at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.