Can Anyone Save Guatemala’s Soccer Federation Before It’s Kicked Out of FIFA?

Guatemala poses for a team photo before a 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup match against Mexico. Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images.

Guatemalan soccer has been in disarray since the president of the national federation was arrested on corruption charges in 2015, and now the country is on the brink of expulsion from FIFA.

A United States investigation led to the arrest of Brayan Jimenez Hernandez, former president of the Guatemalan national soccer federation (Fedefut, by its Spanish initials), on corruption charges back in December 2015, and the scandal continues to paralyze the organization to this day. Just last week, FIFA confirmed the ongoing ban, which will remain in place until significant reforms are implemented to bring Guatemala into line with anti-corruption rules.

Investigations into corruption have rocked world football at the same time as a series of graft scandals have brought down a government, officials, and business leaders in Guatemala. The Fedefut affair is one of a huge number of cases that continue to emerge as the Central American nation fights to free itself from the tentacles of vested interests that dominate business, politics, and daily life.

For decades, the issue of corruption has never been far from the lips of Guatemalans, but things turned up a notch with the fall of the Otto Perez Molina government in September 2015, following a graft scandal and widespread street protests. Since then, investigations have led to a steady stream of convictions and ongoing trials involving political and economic elites. When it comes to corruption in football, reporter Edwin Fajardo of Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre has been following developments closely.

“The crisis which is affecting Guatemalan football is a continuation of the inefficient model of the Brayan Jimenez Hernandez administration, who the US has accused of corruption,” Fajardo told Remezcla via email. However, Jimenez’s arrest was only the beginning of a long and torturous story of legal and political wrangling that has seen the Guatemalan national team banned from international competitions.

“The directors only think about their personal gain, and not those of the group.”

Under FIFA rules, national football federations must adhere to a set of statutes designed to safeguard the sport from match fixing and other forms of corruption. The arrest of Jimenez led to the formation of a committee to oversee Fedefut and bring the statutes of the national federation in line with FIFA requirements, but local authorities are accused of intervening to undermine its members.

In a letter to Fedefut, FIFA and the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) informed officials that they had “identified strong local resistance to the implementation of principles of good governance in Guatemalan football as required by both associations, resulting in interference in the internal affairs of Fedefut.”

The final straw came when the Autonomous Sporting Confederation of Guatemala (CDAG by its initials in Spanish) refused to approve the new statutes, leading to the resignation of the FIFA-appointed committee. As a result, any new leadership team at Fedefut–which is due to be chosen in heavily-delayed elections–will not be recognized by FIFA. This effectively seals the FIFA ban, and means that both the Guatemalan national team and its club sides are banned from international competition until further notice.

Fedefut missed a FIFA-imposed August 13 deadline to implement oversight guidelines and start the process of overturning the ban; the federation is now trying to get it extended until September 14, but if FIFA turns them down–or if they miss that deadline as well–Guatemala would be expelled from the world soccer body for at least two years.

“There are lots of individual interests that do not help the common good. We will pay a heavy price for the decision,” said Stuardo Ralon, lawyer for the resigned committee members, during a press conference. “Guatemala needs to fix its problems and approve the statutes.”

While politicians and football officials wrestle for power, fans and players suffer the effects of a demoralizing ban. For national team player Jean Marquez, it’s the leaders that are to blame. “Corruption has existed for a long time,” Marquez told Prensa Libre. “The directors only think about their personal gain, and not those of the group. Football has been pushed to one side and the situation looks complicated.”

Carlos Ruiz looks on prior to a CONCACAF Gold Cup first round match against El Salvador on June 9, 2007. Photo by Stephen Dunn/Gettty Images.
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Marquez isn’t the only one to point the finger at corrupt officials. One ex-player who has fought a long-running battle to bring change to Guatemalan football is Carlos “El Pescado” Ruiz, the all-time top scorer in World Cup qualifiers and former Major League Soccer (MLS) most valuable player. An outspoken figure who courted controversy as the players’ union rep, Ruiz, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article, reportedly has his sights set on the Fedefut presidency.

“It is complicated at this time to improve Guatemalan football if the federation does not have transparency,” Ruiz told ESPN last year. “I am going to fight for that transparency [as players’ union rep] and one day I hope to preside over the federation.”

“It seems like Guatemalan soccer is in its coffin, waiting for someone to read its last rites.”

Elections have been delayed again and again due to the ban, but Ruiz isn’t the only one aiming for the top job. Gerardo Paiz, director of the Guatemalan futsal program, has also been campaigning for the presidency. Ruiz has accused Paiz of running a smear campaign to prevent the former striker from becoming president, and believes that certain people want to halt his bid. “They know that if I make it [as president] there will be changes and they fear that because they’ve got used to the old ways of working, like it was under Brayan Jimenez,” said Ruiz in an interview with Prensa Libre.

Will Ruiz get to ring the changes as president of Fedefut, or will Paiz become the new top dog? Elections still haven’t been called, and uncertainty reigns. FIFA has since promised that further sanctions, including expulsion, could be implemented if the statutes are not put in place under an independent Fedefut committee. The situation looks bleak, and individual interests will have to be put aside if Guatemala is to be welcomed back into the fold.

“It seems like Guatemalan soccer is in its coffin, waiting for someone to read its last rites,” writes Fajardo. Perhaps Ruiz can shake things up if he can manage to become president; otherwise, the end could be near for the country’s soccer endeavors.