The recent FIFA scandal has shaken fans and nations enamored of one of the world's most popular sports, soccer. U.S. charges against more than a dozen people focused on decades-old rumors of corruption and bribery. Analysts say alleged links to U.S.-based financial institutions pushed U.S. prosecutors to take a closer look at FIFA.
The Justice Department indictment against 14 individuals includes racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering charges. Prosecutors say it was all part of a scheme that involved sports media executives agreeing to pay millions of dollars in exchange for marketing rights to FIFA tournaments.
Former U.S. prosecutor John Malcolm said federal prosecutors had all the evidence they needed.
"The U.S. financial system is a hub for a lot of transactions that take place around the world, so either monies were deposited into the United States or certainly money flowed through the United States. The allegations are that there were shell companies set up and nominees to make these payments and accept these payments, so a lot of money was being washed clean, money laundered through the U.S. system," said Malcolm.
Malcolm said the growing lure of big sponsorship dollars is a cause of concern for nations trying to compete fairly both on and off the field.
“[Soccer] is nonetheless growing in popularity in the U.S. and we compete and American companies compete heavily for marketing rights and the right to host these games. Some of the companies that have already pleaded guilty to corrupting this system and depriving victims of money that rightfully belonged to them and not into the pockets of corrupt officials were U.S.-based companies," Malcolm continued.
Others point to corruption allegations involving FIFA, which awards each World Cup tournament to a host nation. The rejection by FIFA of the U.S. bid for the 2022 games, awarded to Qatar, particularly rankled U.S. officials, according to economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of book Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup.
"There was already information that people had at the time that people were buying votes. That the former head of soccer in Qatar, [Mohammed] bin Hamman, was doing some politicking and some greasing of palms for several years. There were already indications that there was a collaboration that went all the way up to Mr. Blatter," said Zimbalist.
Zimbalist said U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch wanted to make a strong statement about concerns over FIFA corruption in a sport in which the U.S. wants a bigger role.
Zimbalist also pointed out that the U.S. has greater resources than many other nations to fight corruption.
"The United States has been a world leader, we've been a sort of 'world policeman' if you will since World War II, and I think it's generally more comfortable for the United States to assume that kind of a posture than it is for many other countries," said Zimbalist.
FIFA says it is cooperating with both the U.S. probe and a separate investigation by Switzerland into the winning bids for the 2018 and 2022 games. Authorities in Zurich have arrested seven FIFA officials.