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Andy Spalding on soccer and social change: It’s not about the sport

A journalist asked me, “Why are we focusing so much on corruption in soccer? Aren’t there bigger problems in the world?”

It’s a fair point. Corruption in soccer is certainly not among the world’s biggest problems. Not even close.

Neither was racism in pre-WWII track and field. But racist ideologies in the government that hosted the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games soon would be. And so it was that Jesse Owens’ historic four gold medals took on significance far greater than the athletic competition.

It’s not about the sport.

Neither is the outcome of a semi-final hockey game ever front-page news. Why should it be? And who among this blog’s readers can name any of the Olympic semi-final winners or losers of the last 40 years? We can’t, with one exception. 1980. The Miracle on Ice.

At the height of the Cold War, the ragtag U.S. team defeats the feared Soviet Union hockey machine. We think that game was for the gold medal, and this just underscores my point. The broader political and social implications of that match — their symbolic value in an historic, world-changing battle of ideologies — greatly surpassed the athletic tournament itself.

It’s not about the sport.

And neither is the FIFA investigation ultimately about soccer. Sure, sports fans the world round would like to see more fairness, less exploitation, in soccer governance. But the significance of the FIFA investigation, and now, of Switzerland’s important new role, is many times greater indeed.

Corruption in soccer may not be among the world’s greatest problems, but corruption in business and government most certainly is. It is among the principal obstacles to alleviating global poverty. It funds terrorism. A recent poll in China found that the corruption was felt to be that society’s greatest problem — greater than pollution, or poverty, or human rights violations.

And those who are fortunate enough to talk to people all around the world about corruption understand very well that to address corruption, the people must believe that it can, and should, be addressed. That it is not inherent in human society, that it is not unchangeable.

And what better way to send that message to the world than to effectively prosecute corruption in the world’s most popular sport? 

It’s hard to tell to what extent FIFA governance will actually change as a result of these investigations. Skepticism among pundits abounds. But there is little question that global attitudes toward corruption, and the prospect of reducing corruption, are now changing in dramatic ways.

So yes, the FIFA investigation is a big deal. But it’s not about the sport.

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Andy Spalding is a Senior Editor of the FCPA Blog and Associate Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.

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