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Is a new US sheriff riding in to clean up Fifa's mess?

Fifa and corruption allegations - we have heard it all before. So what's new? It is true that football's governing body has been mired in bribery allegations for years. Recently this has centred on claims - strongly denied by all involved - that Russia and Qatar in effect bought the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Fifa investigated the claims and, to no one's surprise, found nothing to substantiate them.

Three things are new: geography, the nature of the investigation and the nature of its evidence-gathering. The arrests last week of 14 Fifa officials and marketing executives was sparked by a four-year US department of justice investigation. Many think it was timed deliberately to place maximum pressure on Fifa president Sepp Blatter before Friday's crucial vote on his presidency, which he won.

It is significant that the US is now leading the way in tackling corruption at Fifa, after European investigators have conspicuously failed to land a blow. The Americans have had a Fifa whistle-blower, Chuck Blazer, helping them amass large volumes of evidence. The detail in the 164-page indictment unveiled last week is astonishing. It paints a picture of systemic corruption on the part of Fifa officials and marketing officials over two decades. The corruption allegedly centres on marketing and television deals for regional football competitions in the Americas, not the World Cup.

Hurray for the Americans! Is a new sheriff riding into town and cleaning up the mess?

Football fans will truly hope so. But, despite efforts to paint the investigation as a total success, the indictment hints that Fifa officials knew of the US investigation long ago, suggesting some may have covered their tracks. The indictment states that "beginning in or about 2012 and continuing through the present, as their awareness of law enforcement scrutiny began to increase, many conspirators engaged in additional conduct designed to prevent detection of their own illegal activities and to provide one another with mutual aid and protection".

The indictment suggests that a key witness was pressured so that he or she would not disclose everything; that officials were warned they were being recorded and that evidence was destroyed. How crucial these factors will be in bringing about a successful prosecution remains to be seen.

Then there remains the issue of extradition. The Americans have failed to extradite the film director Roman Polanski from Switzerland on sex abuse charges. It could be a long time before those arrested in Switzerland last week see a US courtroom. Given the complexity of the investigation, this case will drag on for years.

But isn't Sepp Blatter fatally wounded by the scandal?

Crucially, the scandal is confined almost exclusively to the Americas and, with the exception of an allegation about securing votes for South Africa's World Cup bid, focuses on the allegedly corrupt practices surrounding the sale of television and marketing deals.

Nothing that has emerged so far has threatened to eject Blatter from his post. Indeed, if anything he has emerged stronger within Fifa. Many countries, notably those in Africa, who lionise him for channelling vast amounts of money their way to nurture the game at the grassroots, see the US action as a crass political act of revenge for America failing to win the World Cup.

So nothing is going to change, then?

Well, just wait for the smoke to clear. A source familiar with the investigation suggested that the US prosecutors will look to "work their way up" the Fifa chain of command. Blazer has co-operated with them. Others have now indicated they might too. And they may have some very interesting information to share, given their senior positions. Significantly, US prosecutors have hinted that more arrests are in the pipeline, suggesting there will be a drip feed of bad news for Fifa for months to come.

In the interim, the court of public opinion is sitting. Fifa is lampooned on social media. Major advertisers are nervous that their association with the World Cup is becoming toxic. If they show signs of pulling out, Blatter may no longer command the support he enjoys now. As Blatter understands better than anyone, money talks. A nuclear option would see Uefa, the European governing body, make a unilateral declaration of independence, but few want this to happen.

Separately, Swiss prosecutors are also now investigating the awarding of the Russia and Qatar World Cups in 2018 and 2022. Given the way that the US is enthusiastically going about its inquiries, they will be under pressure to throw resources at their investigation. They may yet come up trumps. Blatter appears safe for now but, make no mistake, he is wounded.

© Observer

Sunday Independent