FIFA Soccer Chiefs Arrested in Switzerland on Federal Graft Charges, Face U.S. Extradition
FIFA president Sepp Blatter was not among those arrested in early-morning raids at a luxury Zurich hotel in a police action that has shaken soccer's governing body to the core.
Swiss authorities, at the behest of the U.S. Justice Department and FBI, carried out early-morning raids at a luxury Zurich hotel, arresting several prominent FIFA officials on federal charges of corruption, with plans to extradite them to the U.S.
In a statement released early Wednesday, Zurich police said they arrested six soccer functionaries on warrants from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York. The still-unidentified men are alleged to have been involved in schemes to takes bribes and kickbacks totaling more than $100 million, according to the Zurich Cantonal Police. In return, it's alleged they handed out media, marketing and sponsorship rights in connection with FIFA-backed soccer tournaments in Latin America. The alleged crimes were carried out in the U.S. using U.S. banks.
The charges stem from a joint investigation by the FBI and U.S. tax authorities that has been ongoing since at least 2011. U.S. authorities suspect those FIFA officials that have been arrested of soliciting millions of dollars in bribes, committing wire fraud and money laundering. While Switzerland's extradition treaty with the U.S. excludes tax crimes, the country will extradite those accused under general criminal law.
Zurich police said they would question the detainees today on behalf of the Swiss Federal Office of Justice and wanted persons who agreed may be immediately extradited. If any of the men oppose extradition, however, the U.S. authorities have to submit a formal extradition request within the deadline of 40 days, which will then be assessed.
Early reports indicate up to a dozen or more FIFA officials were taken into custody by police following the raid early Wednesday morning, local time, at the five-star Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich. It is unclear whether further arrests may be pending.
The New York Times reports that 14 people have been charged in U.S. indictments in the case, a list that may include the names of those arrested in Zurich Wednesday. The Times names Jeffrey Webb, president of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), and a major figure in FIFA politics, as among those arrested in Zurich Wednesday, but that has not been confirmed by Swiss authorities. Up to 15 officials are understood to be under investigation worldwide, so the arrests on Wednesday may be just the start.
The Baur au Lac was set to be the venue for FIFA's annual meeting of its executive committee and the arrests come ahead of the FIFA general congress on Friday, where the incumbent president, Sepp Blatter, is expected to win a fifth term as head of one of sports' most powerful governing bodies. Blatter was not among the men arrested, a FIFA spokesman told the Associated Press.
"He is not involved at all," said spokesman Walter de Gregorio.
It is unclear whether today's arrests will impact Friday's election. Blatter's only opponent for FIFA president is Prince Ali bin al-Hussein and Blatter is considered a near shoo-in. Al-Hussein this week said his election team had been in contact with the police after claiming it had been approached by an individual who said he could deliver 47 votes at Friday’s election.
Wednesday's arrests will do little to improve FIFA's image. The world sports governing body has been dogged for years by accusations of corruption, and the organization's lack of transparency in negotiating sponsorship, television contracts and particularly the selection process for its marquee events such as the World Cup has only added to the speculation.
British comedian John Oliver has made FIFA a regular target on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, recently weighing in on the upcoming FIFA presidential election.
FIFA's awarding of the 2022 World Cup to the tiny Gulf state of Qatar, under Blatter's watch, has been particularly controversial — not least due to the secretive bidding process and the subsequent need to move the tournament to winter to avoid the harsh Qatari summer. There have also been vocal accusations of "modern-day slavery" from groups like Amnesty International in reference to the largely foreign labor force used by Qatari authorities to build stadiums and infrastructure for the tournament. FIFA carried out its own internal investigation of the Qatari bid and cleared itself of any wrongdoing, acknowledging there was a "significant lack of transparency" within the organization but finding insufficient evidence of corruption in relation to the bid.
CNN reports that U.S. authorities are also claiming jurisdiction based on the billions paid by American TV networks for the rights to show the FIFA World Cup. Fox currently holds the U.S. English-language rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups after securing them with a reported $425 million bid in 2011, with Telemundo holding the Spanish-language rights. Fox was recently awarded the 2026 World Cup rights by FIFA without an open bidding process.
The World Cup is a ratings winner around the world, particularly in the U.S. The final of the 2014 edition, held in Brazil, saw 26.5 million people tune in to ABC and Univision's broadcast.