Soccer – international sport, American problem

This ancient Greek lekythos depicts a forerunner of soccer.

This ancient Greek lekythos depicts a forerunner of soccer.

I certainly hope NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has gotten out his Crane’s stationery to send a thank-you note to FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

As the NFL’s season of deflated footballs and inflated fists fumbles into the post-season, along comes a corruption and bribery scandal in soccer that makes the NFL look like “The Sound of Music.” Football officials must be wiping their brows and going “Whew!”

Usually when there are billions of dollars at stake and charges ranging from vote-selling to slave labor – brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, no less – the person who heads the organization under siege steps down. But no, no. Blatter – Is that a great name, or what? – was just reelected president of the soccer governing body, vowing to make the organization stronger.

And we can just imagine how he’s going to do that. Human rights abuses? Slave labor? Whoo-whoo, World Cup for you, Qatar. To paraphrase the New York Lottery commercial, all it takes is a (few million) dollars and a dream.

The nation that has decided to take on FIFA, with help from Switzerland (home of FIFA and tired of its image as bank vault to the corrupt), is of two minds about the situation.

On the one hand, the only thing America likes more than a scandal is a scandal set in a five-star hotel. (It was at the Baur au Lac on Lake Zurich that several officials were roused in the early morning hours May 27 and arrested. Ooh, Is it like “The Grand Budapest Hotel?” I love that movie.)

On the other hand, the blogosphere is already complaining about American overreaching and the world’s continuing attempt to shove soccer – a nelly sport of whiners compared to American football and rugby – down our throats.

Both criticisms reflect American ambivalence to internationalism. Back in the 1970s, when the government decided we were going to become international and embrace the metric system, soccer teams sprang up in cities around the country. (I can still see Shep Messing – he of the Dionysian curls – at goalie for the New York Cosmos.)

Then Shep posed nude for the late, lamented Viva magazine – which was supposed to be women’s answer to Playboy; the nation realized that embracing the metric system might mean actually doing the math; and internationalism (with its louche, languorous European overtones) went out the window.

But if not us, who? It was a British statesman, Edmund Burke, who said the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. This is a crisis that has its tentacles in America and the Americas in a sport in which American youth in particular have a vested, growing interest.

And saying there are bigger crises and scandals – on Wall Street, for instance – doesn’t excuse this one. Sport goes to the heart of identity. The heroes of my debut novel, “Water Music” – two swimmers and two tennis players who meet at a fictional New York Olympics – don’t play merely for themselves and their families. They play for their countries as well.

The motivations aren’t always that altruistic. Cities and nations invest millions, often at the expense and on the backs of their citizenry, to create stadiums and infrastructure that may ultimately prove of limited use beyond the World Cup or the Olympics, all in the hopes of a greater place on the world stage. It must be very tempting to small nations, each with a single FIFA vote that counts as much as America’s – votes that Blatter has manipulated.

But for how much longer? That may depend on the resolve of a country for which “football” has a whole other set of connotations.

And a whole other set of problems.