Soccer’s powerful, polarizing governing body found itself on the defensive on two fronts Wednesday, one a Swiss investigation into World Cup bidding and the other a sweeping, stinging U.S. indictment homing in on what America’s top justice official called “corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted.”
Swiss authorities raided FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich on Wednesday, the same day they announced an investigation into the last two awarded World Cup bids — to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 — both of which had come under fire.
But the day’s more definitive and, right now, damning action came out of the United States.
That’s where the Department of Justice announced the unsealing of a 47-count indictment in a federal court in Brooklyn, New York, that detailed charges against 14 people of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy. They include FIFA officials accused of taking bribes totaling more than $150 million and in return provided “lucrative media and marketing rights” to soccer tournaments as kickbacks over the past 24 years.
“The defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world,” FBI Director James Comey said in a news release. “Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA.”
FIFA election to go on, despite cloud
Six people were arrested Wednesday in Zurich with help from Swiss authorities, among them Jeffrey Webb, a FIFA vice president and head of CONCACAF, the FIFA-affiliated governing body for North America and the Caribbean.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter is not among those arrested or charged by U.S. authorities. But he was among those investigated, and officials say that part of the probe continues.
The cloud of alleged wrongdoing won’t change Blatter’s plans to travel to Canada, which has an extradition agreement with the United States, said FIFA spokesman Walter De Gregorio.
Nor will it affect executives from soccer’s scandal-plagued governing body from gathering Friday to possibly elect Blatter to a fifth term — despite questions raised by Greg Dyke, the head of Britain’s Football Association, in light of Wednesday’s developments.
The plans for future World Cups in Russia and Qatar, which has been dogged by criticism for its treatment of foreign workers rushing to build stadiums, are still on as well, De Gregorio said.
The FIFA spokesman scarcely mentioned the U.S. indictment in a news conference Wednesday, though he did try to put a positive spin at least on the Swiss investigation.
“This for FIFA is good,” De Gregorio said. “It is not good in terms of image, and it’s not good in terms of reputation, but in terms of cleaning up, in terms of everything what we did in the last four years.”
This assessment was shared by others around the globe, albeit for different reasons. They include those, like English football legend Gary Lineker, who have long ripped FIFA as a self-serving, corrupt organization.
“This is extraordinary! FIFA is imploding,” Lineker said. “The best thing that could possibly happen to the beautiful game.”
U.S. prosecutor: ‘Not the final chapter in our investigation’
Six of those indicted Wednesday in the United States have current ties to FIFA, while another, Jack Warner, is a former vice president in the sports organization and president of CONCACAF. Others are connected to soccer bodies in North America, South America and the Caribbean, are sports marketing executives and, in one case, works in the broadcasting business.
The Swiss Federal Office of Justice said the suspects accepted bribes and kickbacks totaling more than $150 million, from the early 1990s until now.
In return, they provided media, marketing and sponsorship rights to soccer matches in Latin America, according to the Swiss Office of Justice.
“According to U.S. request, these crimes were agreed and prepared in the U.S., and payments were carried out via U.S. banks,” the Swiss agency said.
The same office added later that it’s blocked accounts at several banks in Switzerland where alleged bribes flowed and seized related bank documents.
On the same day the Justice Department announced these charges, the U.S. agency also unsealed information on four people and two “corporate defendants” that pleaded guilty to various charges in recent years.
One of them is Warner’s son Daryll, himself a former FIFA development officer who pleaded guilty in 2013 to two counts related to wire fraud and structuring of financial transactions. Another is Jose Hawilla, the owner of the Brazilian sports marketing company Traffic Group, who in 2014 agreed to forfeit $151 million while pleaded guilty to racketeering, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
The charges stem from a three-year FBI investigation. While it is fairly comprehensive, that doesn’t mean it’s complete — or that more charges, against more people, could come.
“Today’s announcement should send a message that enough is enough,” said Kelly Currie, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. “After decades of what the indictment alleges to be brazen corruption, organized international soccer needs a new start.
“Let me be clear: This indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation.”
Swiss probing 2018, 2022 World Cup bids
FIFA has been at the center of corruption investigations for years. But the organization has long dismissed allegations that top officials were on the take.
In December, FIFA’s ethics committee said it was closing its investigation into alleged corruption in the 2018 and 2022 bidding process that awarded the World Cup to Russia and Qatar, respectively. Criticism immediately followed. There were allegations of corruption in the bidding process. Qatar’s oppressive heat also drew ridicule, as did its labor rights record.
FIFA said its investigation found no corruption and it has no reason to reopen the bidding process.
In 2011, FIFA banned for life Mohamed bin Hammam, a Qatari member of its top governing body, for ethics violations.
On Wednesday, Swiss authorities said they have opened a criminal investigation into FIFA’s operations pertaining to the 2018 and 2022 bids.
The Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland said it is looking into criminal mismanagement and money laundering.
“The files seized today and the collected bank documents will serve criminal proceedings both in Switzerland and abroad,” a statement from the Attorney General’s Office said.
According to the statement, Swiss Federal Criminal Police will be questioning 10 people who took part in the voting when the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were awarded.
Why U.S. authorities are involved
Swiss officials say they are working closely with U.S. authorities, but the investigations are separate.
Part of the issue for U.S. authorities is establishing U.S. legal jurisdiction for alleged crimes that largely occurred outside the United States.
However, prosecutors say they think the broad reach of U.S. tax and banking regulations aids their ability to bring the charges.
In addition, U.S. authorities claim jurisdiction because the American television market, and billions paid by U.S. networks, is the largest for the World Cup.
Stan Collymore, a former member of England’s national team who thinks his country and the United States should boycott altogether, opined that it’s a good thing that Washington got involved in FIFA’s business.
“The United States is the only nation who can tackle FIFA,” Collymore tweeted. “Well done Attorney General and DOJ!!”
Whatever questions there are about whether American officials should be leading the charge against a sports organization based in Europe, there is no question that they are taking action.
One need look further than CONCACAF headquarters in southern Florida, where authorities executed a search warrant Wednesday morning.
Video from CNN affiliate WPLG showed people — some of them wearing shirts and jackets marked FBI and police — bringing empty boxes into FIFA’s Miami Beach building, presumably to fill up with material related to the U.S. investigation.