Between Euro 2016, the start of 2018 World Cup qualifiers in earnest, and some major upheaval at the club and international level, this year was a consequential one in football. With Sepp Blatter’s removal as president of FIFA and the corruption scandal entering the evidence discovery and continuance motion stages, it was thought that scandals would be fewer in numbers and dimmer intensity.
Boy were we wrong!
We couldn’t fit everything in this list. Some big stories, like riots at the Euros, Messi’s brief retirement from international duty, and Jürgen Klinsmann’s unceremonious departure from the USMNT, ended up getting muscled out. But this list, we hope, provides a good survey of the landscape. Where humans and sport and money congregate, there will be shenanigans.
It is a universally acknowledged truth that some of the stupidest mistakes happen when a clueless individual with influence tries to do good. So it was that the FA released guidelines for reaching out to girls and young women to try and get them involved in football, with such helpful ideas as incorporating breaks so players can check their phones and Twitter feeds and starting out with futsal because it’s “easier.” The recommendations received some well-deserved criticism, which led the FA to defend itself by saying that they totally asked some women for feedback and they said it was fine. This isn’t the most pointed example of institutional sexism in football, but given the age group the recommendations are aimed at, it’s particularly damaging.
If you’re a cynic, or the many horrors of 2016 have left your spirit broken, you may have thought something like this was just a matter of time. Back in August, while playing for the LA Galaxy reserve team as part of his recovery from injury, Robbie Rogers was on the receiving end of homophobic insults and taunts from an opponent. The player in question, eventually revealed to be former West Brom and Southampton midfielder Richard Chaplow, was ultimately suspended for two games and fined. Chaplow accepted the punishment and offered a “sorry if you were offended” style apology but denied making homophobic remarks. Then the conspiracy theories started. And people wonder why there aren’t more openly gay footballers.
This story is still in the early stages, but the gist of it is that Michael Laudrup and his agent allegedly took kickbacks from transfer fees while he was manager of Swansea, and that it was the leading reason for his firing. Laudrup has denied the allegations and Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins said he made the decision to fire the Dane for football reasons. The story broke in the Danish newspaper Politiken, who received documents from online whistleblowers Football Leaks. If there’s anything to this story, look for it to bleed over into next year— and probably rank higher on the 2017 list.
Earlier this year the Daily Mail broke a story accusing former Chelsea striker Didier Drogba’s charity of fraud, alleging that as much as £1.7 million that should’ve gone to help sick and impoverished children in Ivory Coast was instead pocketed. UK authorities launched an investigation and formally cleared Drogba’s charity of wrongdoing earlier this month, although they acknowledged that the organization may have “misled donors.”
Spyros Neofitides was a midlevel official in Cypriot football who made headlines for being named the whistleblower in a wide-reaching matchfixing scheme in the country. Cyprus’ football authorities reacted, somewhat predictably, by going after Neofitides rather than dealing with the actual problem. The CFA hasn’t announced the findings of their disciplinary proceedings against Neofitides and press coverage has been, uh, sparse, so it appears that Spyros Neofitides may have fallen down the memory hole. (If you have any tips, please get in touch with us.)
The controversy surrounding the transfer deal that moved superstar forward Neymar from Santos to Barcelona has been on a low-simmer for the past few years, with allegations that the announced fee was lower than what Barça actually paid and that a third-party firm that owned some of Neymar’s rights was cheated out of the full amount. The allegations were enough to force Sandro Rosell to resign as club president but beyond that the matter seemed to be petering out. Until last month, when Spain’s top prosecutor announced he intended to pursue a prison sentence for Neymar. This hasn’t been resolved yet, so it’s possible that Neymar’s season could come to an abrupt, horrible end.
The Nigerian Men’s Olympic Soccer Team had a rough journey this summer in Brazil. First, the Nigerian FA didn’t pair the bill for the team’s charter flight, leaving the team stranded in Atlanta for days. They finally made it to Brazil in time for their first group stage match of the tournament— barely. Then there was a dispute over payment, and the team threatened to boycott later rounds unless their paychecks cleared. And when the Nigerian FA balked, the team was rescued by a wealthy Japanese plastic surgeon. (Yes, really.) Everything worked out, the Nigerians won the Bronze, and everyone got paid on time. But it was still a farce, and unbefitting one of the strongest teams in Africa.
The American soccer pyramid will likely look very different in 2017. Between the drama at Rayo OKC, Minnesota United joining MLS, Tampa Bay and Ottawa leaving for the USL, and the league’s top moneymakers ceasing operations, the NASL is a shell of its former self. US Soccer will be meeting next week to figure out what to do with it, but even if the league survives (which is by no means certain) it could very well lose its Division 2 status or even be merged with the USL. It seemed like only yesterday that the NASL was gearing up to challenge MLS for its top flight status.
After years of legal wrangling over allegations of tax evasions, Lionel Messi finally had his day in court over the summer. The charges stemmed from earnings on Messi’s image rights, which he and his father hid in offshore tax havens in order to keep more of the income. The courts found in favor of the prosecution and both Messi and his father were sentenced to 21 months in prison. But because of a wrinkle in Spanish law, the prison sentence will almost certainly be commuted to probation, which means Messi’s punishment will amount to some movement restrictions and a few million euros in fines. While many football fans are quite happy that Messi won’t spend nearly two years in jail (myself included), this is still, in essence, another egregious example of money and celebrity buying someone out of severe legal consequences.
One of the more salacious side plots to come out of the FIFA corruption scandal last year concerned the 2006 World Cup. The 50-cent version of the story is that the German bidding committee bribed FIFA voters in order to secure the hosting rights for the tournament. Most surprising was the culpability alleged on the part of Bayern Munich and New York Cosmos legend Franz Beckenbauer, who is currently under investigation for his role in the bribery scheme and, if found guilty, could face upwards of five years in prison.
Can you believe it’s been nearly two years since Hope Solo was suspended from the USWNT for a traffic stop incident? It’s debatable how precarious Solo’s position with the national team following the suspension, but it’s become abundantly clear this year that her role in the push for equal pay for WNT players definitely put her on thin ice with US Soccer. Solo finally gave Sunil Gulati the excuse he had been looking for after the 2016 Olympics, when her comments following the USA’s defeat to Sweden in the quarterfinals of the tournament caused just enough of an uproar to give US Soccer some cover. Solo was suspended for six months and her contract with the USSF was voided, a move which I said at the time (and continue to believe) made no sense. Given her age and her tarnished reputation, this is probably the end of Solo’s career.
The pay gap between the USMNT and USWNT squads has been widely discussed for years now. But this past April, WNT players decided to do something about it by filing a wage discrimination lawsuit against US Soccer. A protracted legal and PR battle played out, with US Soccer offering dubious figures to show that the women were being paid fairly, players taking to the media to plead their case, male colleagues engaging in snarky trolling, and, if you read between the lines, a prominent figure in the player revolt being unceremoniously fired (see #5). Needless to say, this issue has yet to reach a conclusion.
You have to feel for Sam Allardyce. >Being named the new England manager was a longtime dream of his, and after decades on the touchline for Premier League and Championship clubs the 62-year-old, best known for saving struggling clubs from relegation, finally got his opportunity. And he only held the job for 62 days before it all came crashing down. The Telegraph published video showing Allardyce appearing to use his position to advise and help foreign investors circumvent FA rules concerning third-party ownership of players and other kinds of regulated investment in the game. Within 24 hours, Big Sam was gone. A formal investigation by the FA and UK authorities is in the early stages, but for Allardyce the damage is done. It’s unclear what his career will look like going forward, but there’s little doubt that Big Sam just lived through the first line in his obituary.
NFL fans have been positively scandalized this year at the sight of a black man protesting racist police practices and the extrajudicial killings of black people throughout the country by kneeling during the National Anthem. And when Seattle Reign and USWNT star Megan Rapinoe joined Colin Kaepernick in solidarity and in protest against the terror African Americans live under when dealing with law enforcement, soccer fans reacted with grace and nuance. Just kidding Fans lost their minds, the owner of an opposing team went to exceptionally petty lengths to prevent Rapinoe from protesting, and, following the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land, US Soccer signalled that they were ready to tell Rapinoe to knock it off. The controversy raised some difficult questions, like: to what extent is sport a reflection of our cultural and political discourse? What are the responsibilities of athletes as participants in this discourse? Can a member of the national team adequately represent her country while being denied the constitutional rights guaranteed to her as a citizen? Don’t expect these questions to quietly fade away as 2016 comes to a close.
What was perhaps most shameful, most saddening, most infuriating about this story was its inevitability. When individuals wield tremendous power over vulnerable people and are shielded from anything resembling accountability, those most vulnerable will inevitably get hurt. So it was that a number of former footballers bucked years of silence and shame, and a society that tends to adopt suspicion and hostility toward survivors of sexual assault, to go public with their experiences of abuse as youth academy players at the hands of coaches and technical staff. After former Bury and Sheffield United player Andy Woodward told his story to the Guardian, more players gave their stories to the media, many more unnamed figures called a special hotline set up for the victims, and no less a footballing hero than Matt Le Tissier came forward to shed a light on what’s been happening at youth club programs. This is nowhere close to resolved, and it’s not unreasonable to think more victims will come forward and more former coaches will be implicated. If anything positive comes out of this, it will hopefully be an improved willingness on the public’s part to listen to survivors of sexual abuse and, at the very least, give them the benefit of the doubt.
Scandals categorically show football at its worst, which is why we want to end by highlighting what the sport looks like at its best. Brazilian football was devastated a few weeks ago when a charter plane carrying Série A outfit Chapecoense crashed in Colombia. More than 70 lives were lost in the crash, leaving Chapecoense without a squad or a technical staff. In the fallout from the tragedy, the global football community came together to memorialize the victims and offer assistance to the club. At the behest of their opponents, Chapecoense were awarded the Copa Sudamericana title. Clubs throughout South America are offering to loan Chapecoense players while they rebuild. And Barcelona invited the club to play a friendly over the summer to both honor the lives lost and help Chapecoense build up the revenue necessary to re-staff. Nothing the football community can do will bring the victims back, but they did demonstrate that, in times of great loss, no one is left behind.