It’s one of the bigger tournaments on the soccer world’s annual calendar: the 12-nation Gold Cup, scheduled to kick off July 7 with the United States defending its title and hoping to gain momentum toward the 2018 World Cup.
Instead, the tournament, and the entire regional governance of soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean, is under a darkening cloud, amid a widening corruption investigation at world soccer’s main organization, FIFA.
The indictments announced Wednesday by the U.S. Justice Department target 19 people including nine former FIFA officers and five sports marketing executives.
Two of those are the current and the former presidents of the organization responsible for the Gold Cup, CONCACAF, which is headquartered in Florida.
Growth of soccer
In many ways, the influx of money and the accompanying slippery ethics are a reflection of the growth that soccer has seen in the United States, said Clive Toye, who was the last commissioner of the North American Soccer League, the first professional soccer league to have wide success on the continent, before it stopped operating in 1985.
“It’s become an extremely popular sport in the United States, as it is in much of the world, and regrettably, it’s also become an extremely popular way to make money,” Toye said.
FIFA and its president, Sepp Blatter, have been dogged by allegations of corruption and a lack of transparency for years. FIFA hired former U.S. attorney Michael Garcia to conduct an internal investigation, but the organization then announced his investigation last year had cleared it of wrongdoing, a statement Garcia disputed.
“The problem is that Europe hasn’t done anything, this has been going on for years, and they’ve been sitting on their hands,” said Jeremy Evans, who directs the Center for Sports Law and Policy at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in California.
CONCACAF, which is one of several regional soccer organizations that participate in the FIFA system of World Cup play, has had ethical problems in the past, including reportedly not paying any U.S. taxes, despite being located in Florida.
“Now the president of CONCACAF has been arrested after replacing the last guy who was run out in shame. So it’s kind of like who is even left?” Ives Galarcep, a commentator for the U.S.-based soccer website goal.com, told VOA. “So you want to see what happens with CONCACAF, who is left to run it, and if it can get any better. Clearly it has been run pretty poorly for years.”
Among the sports marketing executives indicted was Aaron Davidson, president of Traffic Sports USA, which is a lead promoter for the Gold Cup, whose first games will be played July 7 in Texas.
Davidson served as a top executive with a team in the North American Soccer League, a lesser-known, U.S. second-tier league unrelated to the one headed by Toye. The NASL itself on Wednesday moved quickly to distance itself from Davidson, who could not be immediately located for comment.
“In light of the ongoing investigation announced by the U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday, the North American Soccer League’s Board of Governors has suspended Chairperson Aaron Davidson, along with all business activities between the league and Traffic Sports, effective immediately,” the league said in a statement.
The overall U.S. governing body, the United States Soccer Federation, refused to comment, aside from a statement released Wednesday. The federation has not been implicated.
The federation “firmly believes there is no higher priority, and nothing more important, than protecting the integrity of our game,” it said. “We are committed to the highest ethical standards and business practices, and we will continue to encourage CONCACAF and FIFA to promote the same values. Out of respect for the ongoing investigation, we will not speculate or comment further on this matter at this time.”
Marketing materials prepared by Davidson’ company for the Gold Cup said the previous tournament, in 2013, had a cumulative TV audience of 60 million in the United States, Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica, suggesting this year’s tournament would exceed those number.
Blatter has so far rebuffed calls for him to resign, or at least not stand for re-election in a vote scheduled for Friday. But the chorus of critics, particularly from wealthy corporate sponsors, may crescendo in coming weeks, particularly if other indictments are announced or embarrassing materials leak.
U.S.-based beverage giant Coca-Cola was one of the first on Wednesday to come out criticizing FIFA.
“This lengthy controversy has tarnished the mission and ideals of the FIFA World Cup and we have repeatedly expressed our concerns about these serious allegations,” the company said in a statement. “We expect FIFA to continue to address these issues thoroughly. FIFA has stated that it is responding to all requests for information and we are confident it will continue to cooperate fully with the authorities.”
The Gold Cup tournament website, meanwhile, prominently featured corporate sponsors, including the newest, Delta Airlines, whose own statement mentioned Traffic Sports. A phone message left with Delta’s media office was not immediately returned.
One of the main drivers for the indictments appeared to be guilty pleas made in 2013 and revealed by the Justice Department Wednesday by several men, including an American named Chuck Blazer who used to be CONCACAF’s executive secretary and who also sat on FIFA’s executive committee.
Toye, the former NASL chief, knew Blazer many years ago, when the two were coaching junior soccer teams in New York’s northern suburbs. He also overlapped with Blazer briefly when Toye was working as a consultant for the CONCACAF. The last time they spoke, Toye said, was six months ago, as Blazer’s health worsened.
News reports Thursday said he was hospitalized in New York, and unable to physically speak.
“He was full of life, he enjoyed life, he did before, he was a businessman and I don’t know what the hell he did," Toye said. “He wasn’t exactly looking for a job when I bumped into him. He was able to look after himself quite handily.”
Toye, who said he “loathed and despised” FIFA’s leadership, predicted the scandal wouldn’t have any lasting impact on the growth of soccer in the United States.
“There’s kids out there this morning kicking the ball on the field, Americans are still playing in professional league. Forty years ago, they couldn’t hit the ball,” he said. “There are still more honest people helping to build the game in the U.S.
“Ninety nine percent of the people will continue to play the game and love the game and the game will continue to thrive” once corrupt FIFA officials are rooted out, he said.
VOA's Parke Brewer contributed to this report.