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FIFA, the world soccer governing body, is facing the greatest crisis in its history, with criminal investigations in the U.S. and Switzerland alleging corruption, money-laundering and racketeering.
The Swiss attorney general’s office carried out an early-morning raid on FIFA headquarters in Zurich on Wednesday, seizing documents, and local police arrested at least six FIFA officials at the Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
So it may have come as a surprise that FIFA spokesman Walter De Gregorio in a press conference called Wednesday “a good day for FIFA.”
Speaking to the press just hours after the raids, De Gregorio insisted that FIFA welcomed the investigations and was cooperating fully with both Swiss and U.S. authorities. He noted that FIFA itself asked the Swiss attorney general’s office to investigate the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids. “We started this process last year,” De Gregorio said. “It is certainly a difficult moment for us [and] FIFA is suffering under the circumstances, … but in terms of cleaning things up, in terms of the reform process, this is good. … It hurts, it’s not easy, but it is the only way to go.”
Swiss authorities declined to name those arrested, but, in a statement, the DOJ said they included Jeffrey Webb, current FIFA vice president and president of CONCACAF, FIFA’s operation for North and South America and the Caribbean. The DOJ also indicted Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice president and executive committee member, whom Webb succeeded as CONCACAF president. Warner was not in Zurich for the Wednesday raid, but is, together with Webb, the most prominent name on the DOJ list.
The criminal investigations allege widespread corruption by FIFA officials. The DOJ statement says the nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives indicted were part of a 24-year “racketeering conspiracy” with the goal of “enrich[ing] themselves through the corruption of international soccer.” FIFA members colluded with U.S. and South American sports marketing executives, the DoJ claims, to systematically pay and agree to pay more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments.
“All of these defendants abused the U.S. financial system and violated U.S. law,” said Kelly T. Currie, acting U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York in a press conference in New York on Wednesday. “This sort of corruption and bribery in international soccer has been going on for two decades. This is only the beginning.”
Added FBI director James Comey: “This may be the way things are, but this is not the way things have to be. This hijacking [of the sport of soccer] is being met with a very aggressive prosecutorial response in order to change behavior and send a message.”
Richard Weber, chief of the IRS criminal investigation in the case, said FIFA actions showed that “this really is the World Cup of fraud” and that “today we are issuing FIFA a red card.”
A separate criminal investigation, being carried out by the Swiss attorney general’s office, is looking into suspicion of criminal mismanagement and money-laundering in connection with FIFA’s controversial decision to award the 2018 and 2022 soccer World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively. Swiss authorities are questioning 10 people who took part in voting for the World Cup bids. There have been allegations of bribes and vote buying in connection to both bids.
The outcome of the investigations could have wide-reaching implications. The World Cup is, alongside the Olympics, the most watched sporting event globally, and broadcasters and sponsors pay billions to carry the games or be associated with them. If criminal activity can be proven, it could lead to lawsuits or demands for a new round of bidding for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.
De Gregorio said, based on current information, the 2018 and 2022 World Cups will be held as planned in Russia and Qatar, and FIFA will not hold a new round of bidding. The Qatari bid is particularly contentious as the country has a dismal human rights record — it has been accused of using slave labor in the building of the soccer stadiums for the event. Plus, scorching hot temperatures in the Gulf state mean the tournament will be moved from its usual summer slot to the winter, wreaking havoc on the scheduling for regular soccer league play across Europe.
De Gregorio also reiterated that long-standing FIFA president Sepp Blatter has not been arrested and is not under investigation in either criminal case. Blatter is running for a fifth term as head of the soccer governing body and is expected to win easily when members vote in Zurich on Friday. De Gregorio initially said Blatter was “relaxed” following Wednesday’s raids but later clarified. “He’s not dancing in his office. He is very calm, fully co-operative with everything. That’s what I meant. He’s not a happy man, saying, ‘Wow wow.'”
Following Wednesday’s revelations, Transparency International, a global NGO that exposes and fights government and corporate corruption, has called on Blatter to resign and demanded FIFA postpone its presidential elections on Friday.
“The warning signs for FIFA have been there for a long time. FIFA has refused to abide by many basic standards of good governance that would reduce the risk of corruption,” said Cobus de Swardt, managing director of Transparency International in a statement. “These scandals have taken place under Sepp Blatter’s watch of FIFA, which spans almost two decades. For the sake of the fans, and good governance of football, it is time for him to step down. The elections for president are not credible if they are tainted with these allegations by the highest prosecuting authorities. Blatter must stand down and new elections [be] called to mark a new era of FIFA leadership. At the same time there must be full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest and the pay of the executive committee members. Their hands need to be clean and seen to be clean.”
Blatter himself issued a statement late Wednesday in which he made no mention of resigning or of postponing Friday’s election. Instead, the man who has run FIFA since 1998 said he “welcomed the investigations by the U.S. and Swiss authorities” and believes that “it will help to reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken to root out any wrongdoing in football.” He also appeared to distance himself from the allegations of corruption and misconduct in his organization, saying he would “work vigorously within FIFA in order to root out any misconduct, to regain your trust and ensure that football worldwide is free from wrongdoing.”
Despite the current upheaval, De Gregorio said FIFA will carry out its general congress as planned on Friday and will elect — or re-elect — a president.
None of the officials indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice have been suspended by FIFA.
Last year, FIFA carried out its own independent, but internal, probe into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids. U.S. attorney Michael J. Garcia headed the investigation, which resulted in the 350-page Garcia Report. However, Hans-Joachim Eckert, the head of the adjudicatory arm of FIFA’s ethics committee, blocked the release of the report for “legal reasons,” publishing only a 42-page summary that cleared Russia and Qatar of any wrongdoing in their World Cup bids.
FIFA said Wednesday it would publish the full Garcia Report, but only after the current criminal investigations have been resolved.
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