... is scandal!
Americans have taken more interest in international soccer over the past week, it seems, than they have at any point in recent times. They aren't interested in a particular game or a particular player. Instead, they're fascinated by the scandals that have rocked FIFA, the international soccer organization, and driven its longtime president, Sepp Blatter of Switzerland, to resign less than a week after claiming vindication in a landslide re-election. Part of our interest seems to be a matter of taking credit for bringing down the controversial Blatter. The FBI has been involved in arresting FIFA officials this spring amid charges of widespread bribery and corruption in international soccer. Some observers blame this on American anger over being denied the right to host the 2022 World Cup, which will take place in Qatar instead. It is widely believed that the Qatar government bribed FIFA officials in order to secure the Cup, and it is apparently proven that South Africa bribed some officials to get the Cup in 2010. Nor would Americans be surprised if it turned out that the Russians, who will host the next Cup in 2018, got it the same way -- especially after President Putin denounced the campaign against Blatter as a western conspiracy. Objectively speaking, it looks like there's a lot of corrupt politics in FIFA, but despite that Blatter has been a popular figurehead for soccer in most of the world. That's because he brought the bacon home to many small, poor countries. He spent FIFA money to build soccer facilities all over the world, and in return those countries proved their loyalty last week, when Blatter was considered especially vulnerable though he remained defiant. In this context, the persecution of Blatter and his cronies is again seen as a western plot, born of alleged European/white resentment of Blatter's more egalitarian and inclusive approach. It's most likely that Blatter's administration was at once egalitarian, inclusive, progressive and corrupt to the core. Such policies often are "corrupt" by many standards since they require redistribution of wealth to those once deemed undeserving. But professional sports have had the taint of corruption about them from the earliest times, ever since it was assumed that someone who played sports for money in the first place would take more to lose on purpose or otherwise influence the outcome of the game. As for Americans specifically, I wonder whether Blatter's fall from grace isn't simply a bit of sour-grapes vindication for a superpower whose soccer teams, though improving steadily, still haven't cracked the world's elite. If we're so great, why can't we win the World Cup? The FIFA scandals allow us to say that it's all rigged somehow, whether that's a rational answer or not. They also allow us to sneer at the so-called "beautiful game" and forget all the scandals of our own sports for a while. Blatter is multilingual and might have many words to describe this feeling, but schadenfreude will do on its own.