ON MAY 27th an early-dawn raid at a posh Swiss hotel brought nine bigwigs from FIFA, football’s international governing body, into custody for allegations of corruption. After years when the game’s leaders managed to avoid any consequences for their unsavoury mismanagement, fans around the world cheered the round-up as a first step towards cleaning up the sport. But the American indictment that put these seemingly untouchable fat cats in the dock had nothing to do with FIFA’s best-known dirty laundry, such as the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Instead, it focused entirely on wrongdoing by officials in the Americas, and in particular on CONCACAF, one of the relative weaklings among FIFA’s six constituent continental federations, which includes North and Central America and the Caribbean. The two biggest fish, Jeffrey Webb and Austin “Jack” Warner (pictured)—the current CONCACAF president and his predecessor—hail from two of the smallest countries in the world, the Cayman Islands and Trinidad and Tobago.

Given CONCACAF’s relatively modest stature, the American prosecutors’ focus on the federation is striking. They say that further investigations are still underway, and it would be no surprise if they subsequently reveal additional targets—though any FIFA officials with skeletons in their closets who escaped the first round of arrests will now presumably take extra care to review extradition agreements before they travel. If the dragnet does not wind up extending beyond this group, the simplest explanation would be that the Justice Department took the greatest interest in its local federation. (There is one American among the defendants, Charles “Chuck” Blazer, who has already pleaded guilty.) Another potential reason is that illicit money flows from the region Americans once condescendingly called their “backyard” are more likely to pass through the United States’ financial system—one of the grounds on which the Justice Department claimed jurisdiction—than are similar payments originating from Europe, Asia or Africa. The third theory is that the lords of Caribbean football simply happened to be sloppier in covering up their tracks than their counterparts abroad.

Football is a relative newcomer to the Caribbean sporting scene. Historically, its Anglophone islands have focused on cricket—the “Windies” team dominated much of the 1980s—while the Spanish-speaking countries, such as Cuba and the Dominican Republic, preferred baseball. But in recent years the world’s favourite game has made significant inroads. That owes largely to globalisation, as the colonial past of the British Commonwealth islands fades further into the rearview mirror. But CONCACAF itself has also played an important role.

The federation is an ungainly beast, consisting of two giants (the United States and Mexico) alongside Canada, a dozen smallish countries and 26 tiny Caribbean nations with populations of less than a million. Its smallest member, the British overseas territory of Montserrat, has just 5,000 people and a bad-tempered volcano. Just as in the UN General Assembly, each country gets one vote regardless of its size. As a result, the Caribbean bloc has banded together to out-vote its larger neighbours and secure a comfortably outsize share of the federation’s budget.

For over two decades, Mr Warner was both the architect and the operations manager of this redistributive scheme, to the benefit of both Caribbean footballing nations and, apparently, himself. By controlling so many votes in both CONCACAF and FIFA, he made himself a power broker with the ability to bestow or withhold the organisations’ funds largely as he saw fit. That in turn enabled him to prop up small-island officials when they faced grass-roots rebellions, ensuring their loyalty. Thanks to his ability to direct the largesse in his native Trinidad and Tobago and the prominent public role his perch offered, he also became involved in politics: he once chaired the United National Congress, the current ruling party, and served as minister of works and transport after being elected to Parliament in 2010 by a landslide.

Mr Warner hit his first speed bump in May 2011, following a Caribbean football meeting in Trinidad ahead of FIFA’s presidential election that was organised to support the challenger, Mohammed bin Hamman of Qatar. Envelopes each containing $40,000 in banknotes were distributed at the event; a Bahamian delegate photographed the money, and complained of the “insult” to the Caribbean. Mr Warner promptly resigned from his football-related posts, which forestalled a FIFA inquiry into his actions; 32 others either also resigned or were warned, reprimanded, fined or banned for varying periods. An investigation by the Trinidadian police went nowhere.

Mr Warner’s exit from football had little effect on his political fortunes at first. He was named Trinidad and Tobago’s minister of national security well after the envelopes scandal broke—though he later had to resign following a CONCACAF enquiry into the ownership of a sports complex, which found that using a “balance of probabilities” standard, he had committed fraud and misappropriated funds. Nonetheless, he quickly bounced back by resigning from Parliament, forming a new party, and winning his seat back in the subsequent by-election, this time with 69% of the vote.

It remains an open question whether even the American indictment can ensnare him. He did spend the night of May 27th in Port of Spain’s forbidding Frederick Street prison because his bail, though agreed to, was not yet paid. But he forcefully maintains his innocence, and can fight his extradition all the way to the Privy Council in London, which remains Trinidad and Tobago’s final court of appeal. Two local business figures, Steve Ferguson and Ishwar Galbaransingh, have successfully resisted extradition to America since 2005; they have spent a lot of money on lawyers, but remain free.

Trinidad and Tobago’s parliament will dissolve next month, with a general election expected in September. At the very least Mr Warner is likely to lose his seat. But he still has supporters who see him as the man who made the small islands a powerful force in world football, and who spruced up the neighbourhood sports ground. If the money to do that was bilked from foreigners, all the better. In this view, America’s indictments are simply a politically motivated plot, perhaps to confound Russia’s 2018 World Cup, or avenge the failed American bid to play host in 2022. The Caribbean public is well accustomed to patronage networks. Given the region’s demonstrated apathy towards corruption and incompetence in general, fans are highly unlikely to return their affections to cricket in protest against a bit of palm-greasing.