In many ways, soccer is an expression of human nature. That means that, frequently, the Beautiful Game serves as a backdrop for humanity at its absolute worst. If you like your football with a side of scandal, 2015 offered a veritable buffet of corruption and intrigue. The ongoing probe of FIFA’s dalliance with bribery and money laundering took up much (okay, most) of the oxygen in the room, and indeed one entry on this list wasn’t enough to contain all the shenanigans. Yet FIFA was far from the only story. 2015, er, graced us with MLS politics, institutional sexism, USMNT outrage, and even a sex tape. In short, 2015 was a great year for popcorn makers and a terrible year for, you know, dignity.
Without further ado, here are the 15 biggest scandals that burned up the backpages in 2015. Be sure to do some neck turns and stretches before reading— excessive head-shaking and judicious applications of foreheads to desks may cause serious injuries without proper warm-up exercises and equipment.
Honorable Mentions: Yankee Stadium, Hudson River Brawl, Pro/Rel
First we’ll mention a couple stories that didn’t quite make the list but still managed to rustle some jimmies. It ended up being fine, but earlier in the year the New York Yankees had some serious reservations about NYCFC using their stadium. The soccer guys worked out how to live with the baseball guys and the season proceeded more or less free of controversy. The same cannot be said of NYCFC’s fans, on the other hand, who riled up Soccer Twitter for a day or two after getting together with Red Bulls fans for a rowdy Green Street Hooligans LARP. And if you follow MLS, you’ve probably run into one of those wacky pro/rel evangelists at some point— they had a bit of a snit back in September when Don Garber said in no uncertain terms that it ain’t gonna happen.
15. Jason Kreis fired after one season with NYCFC
Jason Kreis was poached from Real Salt Lake with the intention of building a project. He was promised time. He was promised resources. He was brought to Manchester to essentially intern at Man City for a few months. By all appearances, Kreis was their man for the long-term. And then NYC finished in 8th place in the Eastern Conference, missing the playoffs by some margin, and City Football Group decided it wasn’t good enough. After all of NYCFC’s missives at the beginning about building for the future and wanting someone with lots of MLS experience, Kreis was ultimately replaced with Patrick Vieira, who has never coached a senior team before. So, yeah.
14. The 2015 MLS All-Star Game roster was kind of a mess
There’s a three-stage process to picking an MLS ASG roster. First, Commissioner Don Garber gets to select two players, who must be on the final gameday roster. Then the MLS Fan XI is determined by online voting; while the MLS All-Star Team coach (this year it was Colorado’s Pablo Mastroeni) isn’t required to use everyone in the Fan XI, they’re obliged to take it into consideration. The coach then exercises his prerogative to fill out the 23-man roster. The selection process got off to a hilariously awful start when Garber used his two picks on Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, neither of whom had played a single league game at that point. They were both ultimately ruled out due to injury concerns. Then there was the slot on the Fan XI given to Obafemi Martins by virtue of… his character in FIFA 15 scoring a bunch of goals. Both Garber and the fan ballots declined to include Sebastian Giovinco and Kei Kamara, the former winning the league MVP and the latter being instrumental in Columbus’ run to the MLS Final. Everything worked out— the MLS All-Stars beat Tottenham 2-1— but it was still a mess.
13. Real Madrid getting expelled from the Copa del Rey
This one’s still pretty fresh. Real Madrid named 24 year old Russian international Denis Cheryshev to the team for their Copa del Rey tie against third-division side Cádiz. Cheryshev however was on loan at Villarreal last season, and while with them picked up too many yellow cards in the Copa and earned a one-game suspension from the tournament. He didn’t play in another Copa tie that season, but the ban followed him back to his home club. Apparently someone at Real Madrid didn’t get the memo and Rafa Benítez fielded an ineligible player. Cheryshev even scored in the game (not that it mattered in the end). Long story short, the RFEF booted Real out of the Copa and sent Cádiz through to the next round. Their first appeal to the Spanish Court of Arbitration for Sport was denied, but Los Blancos have some options left, which means this story isn’t over quite yet.
12. NASL vs US Soccer
The current structure of soccer in the United States has Major League Soccer at the top (Division I) and the North American Soccer League just below (Division II). Executives at the NASL believe they have a case for earning D1 status. US Soccer disagrees so strongly that they’re willing to change the rules to keep things the way they are. And it’s looking like this will have to be resolved in court. If US Soccer come out on top it’ll confirm what a lot of skeptics of American soccer already believe— that the USSF and MLS are in bed with each other and exist almost entirely for each other’s’ benefit at the expense of the sport. And if NASL get their way, it could change American soccer forever.
11. Fabian Johnson vs Jürgen Klinsmann
There was a lot of ridiculousness that came out of the United States’ embarrassing loss to Mexico in October, but the whole affair was neatly encapsulated by the Fabian Johnson story. Johnson appeared to pick up an injury in extra time with the score still level at 2-2. He came out, Mexico scored the gamewinner seven minutes later, and that was that. Or was it? Two days later, Johnson was released from national team duty, with Klinsmann not-so-subtly accusing the fullback of faking his injury so he didn’t have to play anymore that night. He went back to Borussia Mönchengladbach and the club medical staff looked him over. Soon after, the club announced that he was unlikely to play the following weekend due to injury, which seemed to indicate that Klinsmann threw Johnson under the bus with a false pretense. But THEN Johnson ended up playing the full 90 minutes in Mönchengladbach’s 5-1 rout over Eintracht Frankfurt. So was he faking? Who knows. Johnson and Klinsmann have since kissed and made up.
10. A FIFA official called soccer in the US an “ethnic sport for girls.”
When Swiss lawyer Françoise Carrard was named to head up FIFA’s reform committee it raised a few eyebrows. It wasn’t enough that he said that corruption in FIFA didn’t exist, or that he claimed Sepp Blatter was the victim of mob that was out to get him. In what must’ve been an attempt to discredit the United States (who, with Attorney General Loretta Lynch at the vanguard, have been instrumental in the investigation of bribery and corruption in FIFA), Carrard impugned the state of soccer in America by calling it “an ethnic sport for girls.” The line was clever in that it insulted a pretty broad swath of people in one go. The comment in isolation would be insulting but otherwise easy to brush aside. Of course, it wasn’t in isolation, and was seen as yet another example of how FIFA as an institution continues to undermine women’s football. Which leads us to…
9. Women got short shrift with the Puskás award
Republic of Ireland international Stephanie Roche scored an amazing goal last year for Peamount United. It went viral on YouTube and got so much attention that she got nominated and then shortlisted for a Puskás. Women don’t get nominated for that award very often, or indeed any of FIFA’s individual awards other than the ones open only to women, so Roche’s nomination was a big deal. She finished as a runner-up behind James Rodríguez for his goal against Uruguay in the 2014 World Cup. Apparently when the 2015 award nominations were due, FIFA decided they fulfilled their diversity quota for the year and declined to name Carli Lloyd to the Puskás shortlist, despite her amazing midfield-line goal in the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final against Japan. In isolation, it’s a curious and frustrating snub. In the context of FIFA’s ongoing problem with institutional sexism, it sends a message to women footballers that no matter what they achieve, it will never be enough.
8. A candidate for the FIFA presidency was accused of IDing footballers in arrests, torture
In theory, FIFA is holding a presidential election in February. One of the front-runners for the job is Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, the current president of the Asian Football Confederation and a member of the Bahraini Royal Family. Since his late declaration for the presidency, Salman has been quietly gathering support in Europe, South America, and Africa, as well as having Asia more or less locked up. His political network must be pretty strong, seeing as his ties to the illegal detention and torture of footballers have so far failed to slow his campaign. FIFA has a pretty high tolerance for bad behavior among its leaders, but if football’s governing body actually manages to elect a president who helped incarcerate protesting athletes, be pretty clear that all their recent talk of reform is truly just an act.