By the looks of it, the greedsters of FIFA were figuring on making a last big score.
For decades, the organization had been voting every four years to choose the next host country for a World Cup to be held six years hence.
In 1984, Italy was chosen for the 1990 World Cup.
In 1988, the United States was chosen for the 1994 World Cup.
In 1992, France was chosen or the 1998 World Cup.
In 1996, Japan and South Korea were chosen for the 2002 World Cup.
In 2000, Germany was chosen for the 2006 World Cup.
In 2004, South Africa was chosen for the 2010 World Cup.
The next one came a few months early.
In 2007, Brazil was chosen for the 2014 World Cup.
Then, in 2010, came a big shift, one that now looks to a senior law enforcement official like an effort to cash in big before it was too late.
“It’s a classic ‘party’s over’ kind of thing,” the official said. “It’s, ‘Let’s get it while we can!’”
At the time, the pesky press had been taking an increasing interest in corruption at FIFA. Reporters were pressing the courts to unseal documents that named retired FIFA president João Havelange and a Brazilian member of the executive committee as having pocketed millions in kickbacks from a sports marketing company.
Meanwhile, the sitting president, Sepp Blatter, was in his 70s. And several of the greedier members of the executive committee were of an age where one last score would have likely seemed increasing attractive, even as the prospect of losing a big opportunity would have been increasingly distressing.
Few opportunities for graft could have seemed choicer than were presented by the would-be hosts Russia and Qatar.
Russia was a land of instant mega-rich oligarchs who viewed the law as little more than a speed bump on the way to making a deal.
As for Qatar, it had money, money, money.
And money was the only way Qatar could expect to prevail.
The population was smaller than the crowds that would be needed to make a World Cup economically viable.
There was also the question of the broiling temperature, which was too high to play soccer without air conditioning.
And Qatar met virtually none of the infrastructure requirements to be a host nation.
Qatar was told that the host was required to have at least six cities and it had only three. Qatar simply said it would build three more.
If Qatar was willing to do that to qualify as a host, just imagine what it would be willing to pay to get named.
So with scandal looming and old age approaching and a pair of golden geese on the horizon, FIFA decided not only to hold a host vote a year early but to choose two countries, one eight years in advance, the other 12.
In the space of a few minutes, FIFA voted to make Russia the host country in 2018 and Qatar the host for 2022.
Russia’s main rival had been Britain, which lost despite personal campaigning by Prince William. The Brits would have done better with truckloads of the banknotes that bear his grandmother’s likeness.
Qatar’s main rival had been the United States, which scored 100 out of a possible 100 in a study commissioned by FIFA itself. Qatar came in with a score of just 70.
An outsider might have thought the U.S. was all the more a lock when former President Bill Clinton joined in the final presentation to the executive committee.
Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Qatar won, as should have surprised nobody who really knew FIFA.
The FIFA leadership’s continuing view of graft was made clear when Blatter was asked if he was aware his predecessor had been taking kickbacks with both hands. Blatter said such payments had not been illegal in Switzerland at the time and were considered simply “business expenses.”
“I can’t have known about an offense that wasn’t even one,” Blatter declared.
With Russia and Qatar, the aging greedsters got their big score in 2010 rather than wait years they might not see.
But talk of corruption in FIFA reportedly reached agents of the FBI’s Joint Eurasian Task Force while they were investigating Russian organized crime. The agents began looking at FIFA. They took note that a resolutely honest representative of the Bahamas soccer affiliate had reported an attempt by a senior FIFA official to bribe him on behalf of Qatar.
The eventual result was the indictment of nine FIFA officials as well as five corporate executives for allegedly participating in an ongoing racketeering conspiracy.
The arrests came two days before Friday’s vote in Zurich for FIFA’s next president. Blatter dismissed calls for his resignation and expressed confidence that he would be reelected despite the scandal.
“It is necessary to begin to restore trust in our organization,” he said with the straightest of faces on Thursday.
The United States, Canada, and the European countries made it known they would vote for Blatter’s declared opponent in the election, Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein of Jordan. Prince Ali is widely recognized as a proponent for actual reform, representing a chance for FIFA to save itself if that proves to be what it really wants to do.
Whichever way the vote goes, one thing is clear.
In going after that last big score, the greedsters ended up ensuring that the party is indeed over.