LONDON—When players break the rules on the soccer pitch, the referee blows the whistle. When politicians and oligarchs break the rules, and laws, to win the multibillion-dollar hosting rights for the soccer World Cup, they seem to think they’re untouchable, that nobody sees what they’re up to, or will have the guts to call them out.
That’s most likely what Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies are thinking right now.
But U.S. law-enforcement officials were on their case, and the American justice system rarely forgets. Arrest warrants, subpoenas, and investigations are all still in play.
One of the sources who helped compile the damning dossier that kickstarted the FBI’s investigation into soccer corruption told The Daily Beast that its lead author, the MI6’s most famous ex-spy, still has a personal interest in the hunt.
That former intelligence officer is Christopher Steele, now extremely well-known in another context.
Before being assigned to look into Donald Trump’s connections to Russia, Steele’s most celebrated job after retiring from the MI6 Russia desk was investigating corruption within FIFA and—just as he would later do with lurid allegations about Trump—Steele took his findings to the FBI.
His reports on soccer helped to ignite a sprawling U.S. investigation that would lead to early-morning raids on the five-star hotel rooms of a clutch of top soccer officials.
In the months and years since that high-profile swoop, Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, was forced to step down, more than 40 individuals were indicted, 24 entered guilty pleas, and two more were convicted in a federal court in Brooklyn on charges that included conspiracy to commit wire fraud and racketeering.
When you consider that Steele’s personal expertise was in the realm of Russian conspiracies, crimes, and corruption, and his FIFA findings reportedly focused on the way Putin’s oligarchs and cronies swung into action to secure the bid for Russia, the total lack of action against them in the courts seems a puzzling oversight. In the 42 U.S. cases, the word “Russia” appears nowhere.
But American investigators may just be biding their time. “The FBI are far from finished,” says Andrew Jennings, who helped Steele compile his dossier on FIFA. “They did the first round of indictments in 2015, they did one or two little stabs since, and they’re still at it. Another friend of mine recently testified to the IRS and prior to that the FBI.
“I wake up every day, look at my messages—no it hasn’t hit, I’ll try again tomorrow,” Jennings told The Daily Beast.
Jennings is the doyen of FIFA corruption reporters. He dedicated more than 15 years to chronicling the misdeeds at the top of the world’s favorite game. In 2006, he published a book on the subject—Foul!—before making a series of explosive BBC documentaries that enraged the soccer hierarchy.
So, when Steele was employed in 2009 by the English Football Association to delve into the 2018 bid process, he obviously figured Jennings could be a vital source. England initially was expected to win, but it soon became clear that Russia would be a formidable adversary that used every means at its disposal to persuade the 22 top soccer officials how to cast their votes during the secret ballot.
Steele knew very well how the Russians worked. His first foreign posting for MI6 was to Moscow soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He eventually returned to London, where he had a senior role on the Russia desk, which included leading the security service’s investigation into the murder of the defector Alexander Litvinenko—whose Russian assassins laced a teapot with rare and deadly radioactive polonium-210.
Steele’s grasp of Russian tradecraft, espionage, and executive action was probably as deep as anyone’s in the Western intelligence community. But when it came to soccer—aside from regular kickabouts as an amateur—he was a relative newbie.
So he picked up the phone and called Jennings. “He came on very politely and in a very convivial way asking me questions that I knew didn’t matter, but I could tell something was up, so I said, ‘Yes you can come up and see me,’ so he jumped on a train and came to Penrith,” Jennings said.
When Steele arrived in the small town on the edge of the Lake District National Park, he told Jennings he was working on behalf of a potential sponsor, but that he wasn’t at liberty to give the name. Jennings didn’t complain as Steele “paid me well to come up and buy me lunch in Penrith.”
The veteran soccer sleuth ran his guest through pen portraits of the senior executives in FIFA, pointing out which of them he believed to be corrupt.
Jennings said Steele subsequently also paid him to go on another trip to Switzerland for some further investigation. “I wanted to check a few things out, and he wanted to know what I would find out.”
A few months later, at the end of 2009, Jennings had another call out of the blue. This time he was asked to travel down to London for a meeting in an anonymous office in Central London. Once inside, he recalls being handed a card by the men who wanted to talk—they were agents in the Organized Crime Division of the FBI.
Jennings said Steele was there. “It was him that made the marriage between the feds and me—so he was in the room,” Jennings said.
This would suggest Steele was in touch with the FBI much earlier than previously reported. The accounts of Steele’s involvement with U.S. law enforcement over soccer corruption usually begin in 2011, after Russia and Qatar had been awarded the games, at which point Steele was said to have called Mike Gaeta on the Eurasian team of the Organized Crime Division.
It’s not possible to check these dates with Steele, who has gone to ground since his dossier on Trump was leaked, but Jennings has been consistent with his timeline over the years in interviews and testimony before the U.S. Senate (PDF). At the time, we didn’t know how famous this “ex-spook” who’d made the introductions would become.
Jennings said Steele’s interest continued even after his brush with infamy in early 2017, when the Trump dossier was leaked. “He came to me last year with a request for something—by which time he was quite well-known,” Jennings said. “I wasn’t surprised, I thought we would cross paths again at some stage.”
The U.S. authorities are still hoping to cross paths with some of the key figures in Russia’s successful World Cup bid.
The New York Times reported in January that grand jury subpoenas have been issued after a sports-corruption investigation by the United States attorney’s office for the Eastern District of New York—the same office that investigated the original FIFA cases. One of the entities reportedly under scrutiny, according to the subpoenas, is Helios Partners.
Helios were the consultants who ran Russia’s 2018 World Cup bid, as well as the bid for the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Another ongoing investigation concerns Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov.
The Russian mobster known as the “Little Taiwanese” formerly operated a global gambling ring and money-laundering operation from an apartment in Trump Tower three floors directly below the The Donald’s apartment.
The operation to track Tokhtakhounov, led by Steele’s FBI contact Gaeta, was the reason for controversial FBI wiretaps on Trump Tower. As well as the traditional criminal enterprises, Tokhtakhounov, who is a fugitive from U.S. justice, is also suspected of being one of Putin’s top sports-corruption operatives. He was indicted by the FBI under James Comey on charges of fixing the 2002 Winter Olympics to ensure Russian success on the ice rink.
According to the book Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, by Michael Isikoff and David Corn, Steele’s FIFA dossier also included a photograph of Tokhtakhounov laughing and sharing a drink with former FIFA President Sepp Blatter at a nightclub in Moscow.
As well as the public arrest warrants and grand jury subpoenas, it’s believed that there may be sealed indictments waiting for corrupt Russian sports fixers to emerge somewhere in the world where they could be detained and extradited to the U.S.
The game’s not over.