LONDON — The biggest sports corruption bust in history was just the beginning.
American and Swiss authorities are closing in on the total destruction of soccer’s rotten leadership in dual bribery investigations that threaten to take out the FIFA president and obliterate plans for the next two World Cups.
Soccer’s multibillion-dollar governing body insisted that the president, Sepp Blatter, has nothing to fear and reassured Russia and Qatar that they will still play host to the world’s most viewed sporting events of 2018 and 2022.
The organization’s complacency has reached levels previously reserved for its hubris and hypocrisy.
Wednesday’s police raids snared the current and former vice presidents of FIFA along with five of their senior colleagues, but Blatter and his friends in Moscow and Doha appear to think they have gotten away with it.
“He is not dancing in his office,” said Blatter’s spokesman. “But he is quite relaxed.”
He shouldn’t be.
When they appeared before the cameras in Brooklyn on Wednesday, America’s top law enforcement officials were clear on one thing: “This is the beginning of our effort, not the end.”
To break the omerta surrounding the leadership of soccer’s hugely unpopular governing body, the authorities needed a way in. Cracks have now opened up on both sides of the Atlantic.
In Switzerland, police officers burst into FIFA’s headquarters to seize documents and electronic data, while their colleagues in the financial crime department were accessing the executives’ Swiss bank accounts. The North American soccer federation’s headquarters in Miami suffered the same fate early on Wednesday. Taken together, the authorities will hope they have access to millions of documents that track FIFA’s true inner workings.
Perhaps more importantly, 14 men indicted on charges of corruption and money laundering will soon enter U.S. custody facing prison terms of up to 20 years. The authorities will hope that some of those men, most of whom are in their late 50s or older, decide to share a few more of FIFA’s secrets if it means they are not condemned to die behind bars. You can’t take down a mafia without snitches.
It was revealed on Wednesday that four men have already pleaded guilty on corruption charges without facing trial. The terms of their “plea agreements” have not been disclosed but Chuck Blazer, 70, once the top American executive in FIFA, has reportedly worn a wire as part of his three-year cooperation with the FBI.
Conversations recorded by a microphone inside one of the Olympic rings on his key fob may form part of the huge case laid out in New York.
Blazer is also believed to have ratted out his former boss, Jack Warner, 72, who was indicted on Wednesday and will face extradition from Trinidad.
If Blazer’s testimony against his former boss is to form part of the Department of Justice’s case against Warner, it must be asked what evidence might be supplied by the far more senior figures who were seized at a five-star hotel in Switzerland on Wednesday. Among them is Jeffrey Webb, the vice president of FIFA, who has been instrumental in smoothing over his boss’s seemingly inevitable re-election as president. Despite a growing revolt among member countries, FIFA insists the vote will go ahead as planned on Friday.
Warner, one of Webb’s predecessors as vice president, may also be wondering what his two sons Daryll and Daryan told the U.S. government in exchange for their own “plea agreements.”
Officials aim to use the same RICO legislation that Rudy Guiliani used to shut down the heads of the Five Families in the 1980s.
Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney General, accuses FIFA of almost a quarter of a century of “rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted” corruption.
For many observers, U.S. allegations about corruption in selecting South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup are appalling, but implications for the upcoming tournaments is far more pressing.
The Swiss authorities said on Wednesday they suspected there were irregularities and bribe payments made in allocating the tournaments to Qatar and Russia. They said they intended to question 10 of the men who cast votes.
The Sunday Times, which received a leak of more than a million FIFA documents in 2014, has previously reported that the English football association had intelligence to suggest that President Putin was personally involved in helping to persuade officials to vote for a Russian World Cup. One official was allegedly given a Picasso, while oligarchs made a variety of approaches to other voters.
Russian officials admitted they were concerned this week, but only about the damage the U.S. might unfairly inflict on the good reputation of FIFA. “This is clearly another case of illegal exterritorial use of U.S. law,” said a spokesman for the foreign ministry. “We hope that this will not in any way be used to cast a shadow on the international football organization as a whole and its decisions.”
It was alleged in The Sunday Times that a vast bilateral gas deal between Qatar and Russia was part of the countries agreement to help each other secure the necessary votes by whatever means.
Previous evidence of corruption in successful World Cup bids has done little to dissuade FIFA’s blind commitment to the result of that tainted vote. When they hired an ex-U.S. prosecutor to investigate the claims, they ended up suppressing their own report.
Global pressure continues to mount, with the director of the FBI publicly claiming that FIFA officials have destroyed the sport’s integrity. “The game was hijacked. That flat playing field was tilted,” James Comey said Wednesday.
It’s clear that FIFA’s leadership is impervious to shame, however, perhaps the courts will be more persuasive.