Today’s news that the German soccer federation could have been involved in bribery around the 2006 World Cup will shake many people to the core. It is easy to point to nations with a history of abuse (Qatar) or corruption (Russia), or individuals with suspicious pasts, and say that they are the problem. If only the righteous inherited the soccer Earth, we think, then the World Cup will be perfect and soccer will be the beautiful game again. More often than not, those righteous are from our confederation or league, or even our favorite teams. This line of thinking, however, ignores one major elephant in the room – that we soccer fans are the reason this corruption has thrived, and we are the reason the sport has reached this point.
The extensive investigation done by the FBI, Swiss authorities and others has shown the depths of corruption in world soccer, and we the casual soccer fan (heck, even the passionate soccer fan) can be absolved from not knowing everything. The cover-ups were good enough and corruption so thorough that even the mundane decisions are potentially covered in slime. In such a world, it is near impossible to tell the clean from the dirty, and observers can be forgiven from shrugging away something that may seem not right but fits into an established pattern of business – a pattern that has been unchanged for a long time.
But the blame still lies on us soccer fans for not asking more questions and following those repeated patterns of suspicion to their logical conclusion. Even without a squad of experienced police investigators, we knew that something was rotten in Switzerland. The 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids were just the flagrant examples. What of the questionable business practices of various officials and confederations? The preference for a handful of partners over other companies in sponsorship? The extreme amount of money flowing, and yet pleading poverty at every opportune moment? The warning signs were plain as day, and while people can be forgiven for ignoring one or two signs of trouble, the overwhelming amount of evidence was too hard to ignore. We knew something was wrong — we had to — but we weren’t quite sure exactly what.
So what did we, the normal soccer fan, do? We moved on. We commented on stories in social media, we grumbled to understanding parties the insanity of it all, and then we continue to watch. We watch the events, we buy the merchandise, and we support our nations as if nothing is happening. We don’t ask the tough questions of our confederations. We don’t demand better coverage from our media. We don’t advocate for major change. It is so much easier to sit back and enjoy things like the Euros, World Cups, and CONCACAF qualifiers. Even with the suspicious stuff, it is simply easier to gripe and enjoy than actively advocate change by tuning out and speaking louder.
Am I a hypocrite? Absolutely, as I am as guilty as others for not working harder to push for change. But it is also too easy to get sidetracked and bogged down with name-calling and stereotyping. In the US, for example, it’s too easy to label people as being pro-this league or anti-this situation instead of sitting down and talking with others about what the real problems are. Regardless of the merits of promotion and relegation, for example, isn’t it better for all US soccer fans to demand answers from USSF rather than say one side or the other is using the issue to tamper debate? The idea of an open system versus a closed system is an important debate to have, but we need to stop using it as a bludgeon to silence discussion on the larger issues. All soccer fans need to come together in the US and ask the famous questions to Sunil Gulati: “What did you know? And when did you know it?” Only then can we begin to get to the roots of the problems in world soccer and create the answers to these questions
No longer can we hide behind ignorance, and no longer is there any excuse for inaction. If you truly believe that FIFA and the international governing soccer bodies are corrupt, you need to act. Contact sponsors, write about your views, participate in debates and focus them on the bigger issues, encourage people to work with you, and if need be tune out events and let people know why.
The time for blame-shifting is over, soccer fans. We created this mess, and we ignored it. So we need to be the ones to clean it.