Brazilians, who know something about soccer, have an irreverent honorific for the grandees who call the shots in the world’s most popular game: “cartolas,” or “top hats.”
Now the cartolas are rolling. Early May 27, Swiss police invaded the luxurious Hotel Baur Au Lac, overlooking alpine- framed Lake Zurich, arresting seven FIFA higher-ups.
The blitzkrieg of charges that hit the soccer bosses (14 people were indicted in total) made Germany’s 7-1 humiliation of Brazil in last year’s World Cup seem merciful.
For the five-time champion Brazilians, in a region where football is practically religion, that home field defeat in the semi-finals of a tournament they used to own was a primetime embarrassment. The bust in Zurich was a scandal –not least because one of the big men in cuffs was Jose Maria Marin, the former head of the Brazilian Football Federation, the official host of the 2014 Cup.
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Former football star Romario de Souza Faria, now a federal lawmaker, immediately took to Twitter to call for a congressional inquest and praised the Swiss for “hitting the rats nest.”
Even President Dilma Rousseff, battered by corruption at Petrobras, weighed in, saying the crackdown on football’s scandal will “benefit the country,” hoping perhaps that it would divert attention from her own.
The rest of Latin America had nothing to celebrate: Eight of the nine soccer plutocrats on the Justice Department’s blotter were from Central America, South America and the Caribbean.
Argentine legend Diego Maradona cheered on the investigation, telling a radio station that FIFA “hates transparency.”
For years, FIFA’s brass and corporate fellow travelers had been under suspicion of running the ultimate sports con, treating the world’s most-watched competition like a bazaar. It’s a tribute to their esprit de club that the global football bosses, who move $1 billion a year, sometimes into the wrong hands, managed to keep the stink under their caps for this long.
The dragnet in Zurich caps a 24-year scheme, which resulted in a 47-count indictment on crimes such as racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies, among other offenses, the Justice Department stated.
Latins are hardly innocents in the game of corruption. Cases of kickbacks, bribes, money laundering and procurement fraud have strafed the hemisphere, erupting in Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Argentina and – hors concour – Venezuela.
Brazilians, like all Latin Americans, revere soccer and not just because it is a Sunday escape. They love futebol because the game is fair and honest; Each match is 90 minutes of honest combat, played under clear rules and impartial judges, and the final score has nothing to do with where you were born or whose pockets you stuff.
“In a hierarchical society like Brazil’s, where the rules looked rigged, the stadium is a model of the modern world, competition is open and individual talent stands out,” the Brazilian anthropologist Roberto DaMatta told me, pointing out that this scandal wasn’t about the sport’s athletes, but the bosses who run the game.
In this way, the fall of FIFA’s impresarios might even be the best news for this “country in cleats,” as the old Brazilian saw has it. Cleaning up the beautiful game will take more than just a bust in the Alps, but with more high hats expected to roll, and scandal-tarnished FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s reelection on the line, keep your eye on the world’s favorite bouncing ball.
Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg View contributor based in Rio de Janeiro.