LONDON — The United States is leading an unlikely charge to save the rest of the world from its beloved beautiful game.
Soccer has wallowed in accusations of bribery and corruption for decades, culminating in the ludicrous and unexplained decision by the sport’s governing body, FIFA, to award the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar, two oil-rich nations with poor human-rights records and none of the conditions or infrastructure necessary to host the showpiece events.
No one has held the game’s organizers to account until now.
In dawn raids on a five-star hotel in Switzerland on Wednesday, seven of the sport’s most powerful executives, including FIFA’s vice president, were placed under arrest. This follows lengthy corruption investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation. The U.S. will ask the Swiss government to extradite the seven FIFA executives, who would face as much as 20 years in prison. Further arrests are expected.
Despite hosting the World Cup in 1994, the U.S. has always been seen as an outsider in a sport that is the undisputed No. 1 crowd pleaser in most other countries. Wednesday’s arrests, however, cast the U.S. as a central player in a dramatic intervention that has turned the entire soccer world upside down. Billions of dollars in advertising and television rights controlled by FIFA could be at stake.
The U.S. authorities probed what officials described as a 24-year scheme by senior executives to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer. Indictments on 47 counts against 14 people, including racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering, were unsealed in federal court. The indictment details a $10 million payment to induce one executive to vote for the 2010 World Cup to be hosted in South Africa. There are also allegations that bribes were paid to help Sepp Blatter secure the FIFA presidency in 2011.
“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Wednesday in Brooklyn. “Today’s action makes clear that this Department of Justice intends to end any such corrupt practices, to root out misconduct, and to bring wrongdoers to justice—and we look forward to continuing to work with other countries in this effort.”
The soccer officials charged include Jeffrey Webb, FIFA’s vice president; Eugenio Figueredo, the former vice president of South American football; and Jack Warner, the former FIFA vice president and boss of soccer in North and Central America. Also arrested were Eduardo Li, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, Rafael Esquivel, José Maria Marin, and Nicolás Leoz. They were allowed to gather their suitcases and were led out of the hotel behind bedsheets that protected them from photographers.
Also unsealed were the convictions of four men who have already pleaded guilty to related charges, including American Chuck Blazer, the former general secretary of CONCACAF and FIFA executive committee member, who admitted 10 counts of racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering, and income tax evasion. It is unclear how much information about FIFA practices these men have shared with investigators.
The FIFA executives were gathered at the luxury Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich for a summit that was widely expected to re-elect Sepp Blatter as the organization’s president. One of his rivals dropped out of the contest last week, calling Blatter a dictator and describing the election process as a machine “for the delivery of absolute power to one man.”
U.S. officials said Blatter was not named as a suspect in the current arraignments, but noted that their investigation into all of FIFA would continue.
“Let me be clear: This indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation,” acting U.S. Attorney Kelly T. Currie said.
Hours after many of Blatter’s key lieutenants were arrested, a FIFA spokesman said the election would go ahead regardless, and said Blatter was “quite relaxed.”
It remains to be seen whether FIFA’s executives, when faced with the prospect of lengthy jail sentences, might decide to help the FBI expand its investigation to the very highest level of soccer. As he listens to the U.S. prosecutors, Blatter may feel a little less relaxed.
Officials in Switzerland said they had opened criminal proceedings into the awarding of the Qatari and Russian World Cups. They have seized documents from FIFA’s headquarters and gained access to the Swiss bank accounts of executives they suspect of “unjust enrichment” and money laundering.
The arrests cast the governing body into an unprecedented crisis that may force reluctant member states to finally challenge what some have described as endemic corruption. FIFA will face calls to re-open its decision to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia despite fears of degraded infrastructure and widespread allegations of corruption, and the 2022 competition to Qatar despite the nation’s appalling record on human rights and temperatures that will make it impossible to hold the event during the summer.
In a bid to dispel widespread claims that the process to select these countries may not have been entirely open and democratic, FIFA hired Michael Garcia, a former U.S. federal prosecutor, to investigate these and other allegations.
He reported back last year compiling his findings into a 400-page report, but FIFA announced that the report would not be published. Instead, it released what it called a summary of Garcia’s findings. He described the published version as “incomplete and erroneous” and promptly resigned in protest.
Garcia’s probe did not even consider a huge cache of millions of emails that was leaked to the London Sunday Times. After months combing through the unprecedented haul of documents that offered access to the very heart of FIFA for the first time, the newspaper ran front-page stories alleging “secret deals” involving millions of dollars in payments and a “plot to buy the World Cup.”
FIFA insisted, even today, that it would not consider re-running the World Cup bids. But thanks to the interventions of Switzerland and the U.S., everything about the organization and its decisions may now be called into question.