The Beautiful (If Occasionally Corrupt) Game

May 27, 2015 • Featured, Required Reading

This morning, Swiss law enforcement, in cooperation with the US Justice Department, arrested more than a dozen of the soccer world’s governing elites on charges of corruption in a spectacle usually reserved for mafia kingpins (incidentally, a number of the charges against the accused are based on the RICO Act, originally developed to nail, surprise, mafia kingpins).

Was the timing of the arrests unexpected? Yes. Were the arrests themselves surprising? Hardly. The soccer world’s rampant corruption is one of the most poorly concealed secrets in the sports. (For an excellent primer, see John Oliver’s segment from last year’s World Cup).

Anyone hoping to get a little more background on the hilariously, depressingly corrupt world of international soccer need look no further than The Big Fix, Brett Forrest’s recent account of match rigging in the beautiful game. A senior writer for ESPN Magazine, Forrest uncovers hundreds of instances of fixed matches in international soccer, from minor exhibition games to CONCACAF Gold Cup matches (The head of CONCACAF, the governing body of North American soccer, was among those arrested this morning).

The tactics of the match fixers, mostly Asian and Eastern European gangs, are nothing if not creative: bribing stadium techs to cut the lights when the desired score is reached, convincing players to drug their own teammates so that the opposing team can more easily outmaneuver them, etc. The ease with which the match-fixers pull off these stunts is startling. Less surprising is FIFA’s (perhaps criminally) listless approach to the whole thing.

For our fellow Americans who still don’t understand the appeal of a game where a score of 1-0 can constitute an exciting time, we offer Franklin Foer’s excellent How Soccer Explains the World. A wide-ranging cultural study, Foer’s book is also a thoughtful and very witty look at globalization and how soccer clubs reflect the issues and values particular to their countries. We see, for instance, an amusing compare-and-contrast between the ways Silvio Berlusconi’s AC Milan and the Fiat-owned Juventus curry favor with Italian referees that also reflects the changing of Italy’s oligarchical guard. Elsewhere, we get the story of one of England’s most notorious hooligans, and how even he managed to clean up his act alongside his beloved Chelsea, even becoming (yes) a consultant hooligan to a new generation.


Lastly, there’s The World Is a Ball, by John Doyle. Part travelogue, part love letter, Doyle’s book seeks to understand the game less by how it’s played than by how it’s experienced by people around the world. As the soccer-loving world is beset by its latest and largest scandal, it’s valuable to be reminded why literally billions of people love this game despite its being run by perhaps one of the most fantastically corrupt organizations in the world.