Sepp Blatter exits, stage right. What's next for global soccer?

FIFA's long-serving president stepped down today amid growing revelations about rampant corruption in soccer's governing body. But many key questions remain unanswered, including what this means for World Cups in Russia and Qatar.

Ruben Sprich/Reuters
FIFA President Sepp Blatter leaves after his statement during a news conference at the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, on Tuesday. Mr. Blatter resigned as FIFA president on Tuesday, four days after being re-elected to a fifth term.

Sepp Blatter, president of soccer's world governing body, FIFA, announced his resignation on Tuesday, just days after a joint US-Swiss indictment saw seven FIFA officials arrested and more than a dozen indicted on US federal corruption charges. But even though Mr. Blatter apparently yielded to immense pressure to change the course of the soccer organization, many key questions remain unanswered – including what this means for the next two World Cup tournaments, which remain on the schedule. Here's what you need to know.

Q: Why did the arrests happen when they did?

The operation was timed for maximum effect. A joint US-Swiss anticorruption report was unveiled to the world just two days before a congress for FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, was scheduled to reelect its president, Blatter, who for generations has sat at the top of the multibillion-dollar organization while corruption flourished all around him. Prosecutors were clearly hoping that the scandal would convince the mandarins of “the beautiful game” to turn on their leader. That didn’t happen. Blatter was overwhelmingly reelected May 29 for an unprecedented fifth term. Then on June 1 evidence emerged that FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke – a Blatter protege and his right-hand man – had facilitated a $10 million bribe from South Africa's soccer association to win the 2010 World Cup. The next day Blatter resigned, without explaining the change of heart.  

Q: Why should anyone care?

Soccer is just a game, sure. But in many countries it verges on a religion. It’s also an enormous global business. FIFA, which controls the licensing for the quadrennial World Cup, earned more than $2 billion in 2014. The biggest businesses in the world line up to sponsor the World Cup – Coca-Cola, Nike, Visa, Toyota, among them. The reason is simple: eyeballs. The 2014 World Cup in Brazil had more than 3 billion viewers for its group stages and an estimated 1 billion people tuned in to watch Germany defeat Argentina in the final. There is simply no event, sporting or otherwise, that can match it.

Q: What are the allegations and who is behind them?

The Swiss and the Americans are running parallel investigations. When Swiss security swooped in and arrested seven FIFA officials at Zurich’s 170-year-old Baur au Lac hotel shortly before dawn on May 27, New York prosecutors were putting the finishing touches on a sweeping indictment naming 13 people and detailing bribes and questionable sponsorship agreements. 

The US allegations focus on 20 years of corrupt dealings by two FIFA federations, CONCACAF, which runs international tournaments in Central and North America and the Caribbean, and CONMEBOL, which governs the game in South America. The US prosecutors claim that hundreds of millions in bribes were distributed over the years for broadcasting and advertising rights for regional tournaments to soccer officials in the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Trinidad, and the Cayman Islands.   

The Swiss investigation doesn’t appear nearly as advanced but could potentially be more damaging. Swiss prosecutors say they’re looking into whether bribes were used to fix the FIFA votes that awarded hosting future World Cups to Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022). 

Allegations that the votes were fixed have swirled around the globe for years, for good reason. Qatari tycoon and FIFA Vice President Mohamed Bin Hammam was kicked out of the organization a few years ago after extensive evidence emerged that he’d spent $5 million buying votes for Qatar’s bid.  

Q: With Blatter out will FIFA clean up?

Blatter was defiant after his reelection in May, saying he was shocked at the corruption allegations while also promising to clean up FIFA – the same promise he made the last time he was reelected, in 2011. He also said the investigation was just sour grapes because England and the United States, front-runners for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, lost their bids. He also said he’s been unfairly targeted by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).

Now, UEFA and much of world soccer has gotten what it's wanted. But there's no guarantee a post-Blatter regime will be any less corrupt. After all, he was overwhelmingly reelected at the end of May amid the current scandal. The culture of self-dealing among many, it not all, of FIFA's 209 members remains intact.

Q: What will happen next?

UEFA has long been at loggerheads with FIFA, and relations have nosedived since Qatar was granted the World Cup. The competition has traditionally been held during summer in the Northern Hemisphere. But in Qatar, summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees F. FIFA’s solution? Unilaterally move the World Cup to the winter, which will disrupt the season for the lucrative European leagues. 

The European professional leagues are where the real money is in world soccer, and the vast majority of true stars – whether they hail from Ghana or Brazil, Germany or Spain – play in Europe.

A recent analysis by statistician Nate Silver convincingly made the case that UEFA’s 54 members, plus the US, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, and China, account for 70 percent of the value of the global audience for soccer. This group only has about 28 percent of the votes in FIFA and each individual member has equal voting power in the organization, whether China and it's 1.3 billion citizens or The Cayman Islands and its 60,000 people.

That's one of the reasons that Qatar, with under 300,000 citizens, was able to secure the World Cup. Now soccer heavyweights are hoping to do away with Qatar's World Cup, considered the biggest FIFA farce in the organization's long list. Greg Dyke, chairman of England's Football Association, didn't waste time after Blatter's resignation in putting the focus on the oil-rich monarchy. "If I were Qatar right now I wouldn’t be feeling very comfortable.”

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