On July 10, the same day France beat Belgium 1 to 0 to
advance to the final, a Florida-based sports marketing company pleaded guilty
in a New York federal court to criminal charges related to millions of dollars
worth of bribes paid to soccer officials across the Americas.
Prosecutors alleged that the company, Imagina US, coordinated in
2012 with another sports marketing firm, Traffic USA, to bribe Jeffrey Webb,
who at the time held high-ranking posts in FIFA as well as in the Caribbean
Football Union (CFU).
Imagina US is a leading production company for the US
Hispanic and Latin American markets. It says in their corporate website that
they “proudly provide tailored solutions for the entire value chain of services
required to successfully distribute any audiovisual content – to and from – any
part of the world”. It is the US subsidiary of Imagina Media Audiovisual, the
leading Spanish audiovisual production holding.
Traffic had promised Webb a 3 million dollar bribe for
help obtaining the rights to market and broadcast qualifying matches for the
2018 and 2022 World Cups that were controlled by the CFU’s members. Imagina
admitted to cutting a deal with Traffic to pay half of the 3 million dollars,
and to share the costs and revenues of marketing and broadcasting those
Imagina also pleaded guilty to bribing soccer
officials in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Costa Rica in exchange for
marketing and broadcast rights for World Cup qualifying matches controlled by
the FIFA-affiliated national soccer associations in those countries.
A press release from the US attorney’s office notes that many of
the individuals involved in the bribery had previously pleaded guilty to
similar schemes, making Imagina only the latest in a long string of soccer
bigwigs taken down by US authorities since the 2015 unveiling of a years-long
probe into corruption within FIFA.
“The government’s investigation is ongoing”, the press
Journalist Ken Bensinger lays out the origin and
development of the sprawling case in a new book released on the eve of the opening match of this
year’s World Cup: Red Card: How the U.S.
Blew the Whistle on the World’s Biggest Sports Scandal.
In 2011, a crusading agent of the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) with a lifelong passion for soccer got involved in the FBI’s case after discovering that a powerful American FIFA official named Chuck Blazer had not paid taxes in nearly two decades.
The rigorously researched narrative recounts in rich
detail how US law enforcement took on some of soccer’s most powerful figures,
and how they ended up handling the investigations and prosecutions as an
organized crime case — with FIFA itself as the criminal organization.
Trump and Russia
The case got its start in a somewhat unlikely place.
In 2010, an agent of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) looking into
Russian organized crime groups got a tip that Russia seemed to be trying to
improperly influence FIFA officials to vote in support of the country’s
ultimately successful bid to host the 2018 World Cup.
That tip came to the FBI through former British spy
Christopher Steele, who later became famous for authoring a document containing
sensational allegations about supposed ties between Donald Trump and the
In 2011, a crusading agent of the US Internal Revenue
Service (IRS) with a lifelong passion for soccer got involved in the FBI’s case
after discovering that a powerful American FIFA official named Chuck Blazer had
not paid taxes in nearly two decades.
Working together, the IRS agent and the FBI team began
gathering evidence of systematic corruption within FIFA stretching back
Many of the schemes were similar to the one described
above involving Traffic and Imagina: bribes in exchange for marketing and
broadcast rights. But there were other forms of graft as well.
Blazer, for instance, bought luxury properties and
paid for food, travel and gifts using FIFA’s money. And he accepted illicit
payments in exchange for his vote on important FIFA decisions, like the choice
to award South Africa the right to host the 2010 World Cup.
The victims of this illicit activity, Bensinger told InSight Crime, are the millions of fans
and players of the sport around the world.
“You have all these corrupt officials taking money
that would otherwise go to the game”, Bensinger said. “It is supposed to go to
pro teams that need money to build better stadiums. It is supposed to go to
youth teams, and to literally buying balls and cleats, and building fields for
kids to play on … All those things get cheated and robbed of resources when
there is corruption”.
Crossing the Goal Line
In late 2011, US investigators confronted Blazer and
offered him a choice: cooperate on the FIFA probe or face prosecution for
felony tax evasion. Blazer chose to cooperate, and became what Bensinger calls
a “tour guide” of soccer corruption.
As Blazer walked the investigators through how the
graft schemes worked and who was involved, they began to see how the global
network of soccer officials and marketing firms resembled a criminal organization.
“In fact”, Bensinger writes, “they increasingly
felt, it looked just like the mafia”.
Over the next several years, authorities caught up to other top FIFA officials and marketing executives involved in the corruption. They flipped more key figures who, in turn, provided evidence implicating even more of the international soccer elite.
Over the next several years, authorities caught up to
other top FIFA officials and marketing executives involved in the corruption.
They flipped more key figures who, in turn, provided evidence implicating even
more of the international soccer elite.
Finally, in May 2015, the investigation culminated in
announcement of an
indictment naming 20 defendants, six of whom had already pleaded guilty.
The revelation of the criminal charges set off an
international firestorm. Then, in December 2015, authorities made public a
superseding indictment that expanded the number of suspects charged, and explained in
further detail why prosecutors considered FIFA to be a criminal enterprise.
Bensinger quotes the indictment in the book: “The
corruption of the enterprise became endemic”. When scandals forced certain
officials out of the organization, other crooked actors swiftly took their
Many of the defendants pleaded guilty. But in November
2017, three top FIFA officials took their
chances at trial.
A month later, two of the three were convicted. They are scheduled to be sentenced next month.
Has the exhaustive investigation and prosecution of
some of the most powerful figures in soccer helped clean up the sport?
Bensinger says that FIFA has taken some positive steps
in the wake of the scandal. But, he adds, the organization has not gone far
“I think it is folly to expect that by arresting a
bunch of people you solve the cultural problems of the institutions,” he says.
“This is sort of the splash of cold water on the face, but what has to come
next is the hard work of really creating a new, less corrupt culture”.
Bensinger points out that FIFA has long operated in an
opaque fashion, and that tradition of non-transparency will be difficult to
“It is very hard for them culturally to understand
that there is an expectation that they provide more information, that they are
more open about what they do” he says.
As for whether the revelations of pervasive graft in soccer will significantly damage the game’s
immense global popularity, Bensinger thinks the chances of that are slim.
“I think there are people who are going to be turned
off from the sport, but they are dwarfed by the people who love it anyway”, he
says. “That is the thing about soccer: even with all the filth, people love the
sport and want to keep watching it”.
This article was previously
published by InSight Crime.