The United States Department of Justice said it had indicted nine current and former FIFA officials and five others, accusing them of numerous corruption charges spanning two decades, including racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering, with bribes in excess of $150m.
Swiss authorities arrested seven of the nine officials in Zurich in the early hours of Wednesday morning. The defendants were all staying at the same luxury hotel where they had gathered with members of soccer’s international governing body to prepare for their presidential elections on Friday.
The coordinated effort between the US and Swiss authorities unveiled separate investigations as the two nations look into counts of “racketeering, conspiracy and corruption”. The FBI has been examining the business of FIFA over the past few years and believe they uncovered a “24-year scheme”, beginning in the early 1990s. Senior FIFA officials sought to “enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer.”
FIFA gets a red card
United States Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in a statement:
The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States.
Beginning in 1991, two generations of soccer officials […] used their positions of trust within their respective organizations to solicit bribes from sports marketers in exchange for the commercial rights to their soccer tournaments. They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament.
The accusations went further than the solicitation involved with sports marketing companies. The bidding process for the 2010 World Cup held in South Africa, the first time an African nation had hosted the tournament, was also revealed to be plagued with corruption, and that “bribery extended to the 2011 FIFA presidential election.”
In short, these individuals and organizations engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games; where the games would be held; and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide.
Director James Comey of the FBI claimed FIFA’s officials “fostered a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world.”
Richard Weber of the IRS’s Criminal Investigation Division used FIFA’s own motto when describing the fraudulent nature of the body, saying soccer’s governing body was “Not for the game and certainly not for the world,” before adding “today we are issuing FIFA a red card.”
Kickbacks on the American Continent
The rising interest in soccer across the Americas in recent years has inflated the cost of marketing rights for the sport’s tournaments. And it is believed this is where many of the leading figures representing North, Central and South American soccer, as well as Caribbean federations, were able to profit.
One of the named individuals is Jack Warner. A former vice-president of FIFA who since the early 1990s held the top spot of the Caribbean Football Union and later ran CONCACAF, the soccer confederation of North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Mr. Warner is accused of soliciting and accepting bribes since he headed the Caribbean Football Union, including his vote on FIFA’s executive committee to select the World Cup host nations in 1998 and 2010.
Another former VP, Nicolás Leoz, President of the South American Federation (CONMEBOL), began soliciting kickbacks, channeled through offshore corporations to renew commercial contracts.
In 1991, Brazilian sports marketing firm Traffic Group entered into a $6.6 million contract for the exclusive rights to three years of the Copa America tournament, but Mr. Leoz refused to sign it unless he got a bribe, the indictment alleges.
In a private meeting, Mr. Leoz told a Traffic executive it was not fair that the Traffic would make a lot of money when he, Leoz, would not. The executive wired a “six-figure” U.S. dollar payment to Mr. Leoz. These payments continued, with bribes reaching seven-figures, for all subsequent rights.
The Swiss Case
The US is currently seeking the extradition of the arrested officials in Zurich, where six of the seven are believed to be opposing deportation. None shall be allowed to leave Switzerland until extradition is finalized.
Swiss prosecutors announced they had opened their own probe over suspected misconduct and money laundering associated specifically with the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids, awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.
Authorities in Switzerland raided FIFA’s head office outside the capital, collecting electronic data and documents linked to the case.
André Marty, a spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland, said investigators had summoned ten people involved in FIFA’s executive committee during the 2010 bidding process for the subsequent World Cups.
Last November, FIFA provided the OAG with its own investigation regarding the 2018 and 2022 bids, written by Michael Garcia who later resigned when his report and findings were misrepresented by the FIFA ethics committee.
Of the ten members from the 2010 committee, Marty said, “We are interested to understand the mechanism of 2010 from their point of view and the position they would like to declare regarding this.”
Blame the crew, not the captain
Although he hasn’t been charged, it has been understood that FIFA’s long serving president, Sepp Blatter, may yet be questioned, with Marty saying:
In theory and depending on the outcome of the investigation, Sepp Blatter could be questioned in the coming weeks, and theoretically – every person involved in the allocation of the World Cups might be questioned
Blatter has come under much scrutiny during his 17-year tenure. With new allegations over his presidency bid in 2011 the pressure is mounting for his resignation.
With only two days before the next election, FIFA spokesman Walter De Gregorio told reporters the vote would go on as planned for Friday, with Mr. Blatter completely focused on his re-election
He also reiterated that Blatter has never been involved in any of the wrongdoing.
“This is not good in terms of image or reputation but in terms of cleaning up everything we did over the past four years, this is good,” he said.
He added that, as of Wednesday, the 2018 and 2022 World Cups would continue to be held in Russia and Qatar and said of Blatter, “He is not dancing in his office. He is just very calm.”