At the center of soccer’s immense global influence sits Federation Internationale de Football Association, better known as FIFA, a Swiss-based organization that serves as the umbrella governing body for the sport.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch claimed Wednesday that soccer’s world governing body has been infected by corruption that allowed members and related firms to enrich themselves through bribery and kickbacks “year after year, tournament after tournament.”
Lynch outlined the U.S. complaints against the sport’s overseers, known as FIFA, hours after a stunning series of indictments and arrests that included Swiss authorities leading top FIFA officials from a luxury hotel in Zurich.
Earlier, the Justice Department’s unsealed a 47-count indictment charging 14 world soccer figures, including officials of FIFA, with racketeering, bribery, money laundering and fraud totally more than $150 million.
The Department of Justice unsealed a massive indictment early Wednesday implicating 14 officials associated with soccer across the world — including much of the leadership of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body — in decades of corruption involving bribery, money laundering and fraud associated with how the organization decides where to host the World Cup and its other prestigious soccer events, and how media and marketing deals associated with those tournaments are awarded. Several arrests were dramatically carried out by in a five-star resort in Zurich, Switzerland, where FIFA officials are gathered for their annual meeting.
Wednesday’s indictments did not include Sepp Blatter — FIFA’s longtime president, who is expected to be re-elected to a fifth term Friday — and a FIFA spokesman pledged Blatter was not involved with any of the alleged corruption, and that the organization welcomes this investigation. Anyone familiar with FIFA’s reputation will greet these claims with skepticism.
Nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives face U.S. charges including racketeering, bribery, money laundering and fraud. Four others plus two sports marketing companies have already pleaded guilty.
The idea of the United States as the world’s police force is rarely understood to be so literal as on Wednesday. So how can it point out a criminal conspiracy involving a foreign organization and then flex its legal muscle across the Atlantic? The key, one law professor explained, is finding an aspect of the alleged crime that took place within U.S. borders.
The wealthy Persian Gulf emirate won the event over the lobbying efforts of former U.S. president Bill Clinton and then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. More than two and a half years later, concern over corruption withing FIFA has become a U.S. criminal case and launched Holder’s successor, Loretta E. Lynch, onto the international stage.
Year in, year out, the allegations of corruption and naked greed swirl around FIFA and Sepp Blatter, its longtime president and the man who has long reigned as the most powerful person in sports.
They were shrugged off with the easy “Casablanca” quote from Capt. Renault: “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here! ”
But that does a disservice to Blatter, whose instinct for survival while running the multibillion-dollar business of the world’s most popular sport is unparalleled in any other sport.
The indictment alleges bribes were paid and pocketed in connection with the sponsorship of the Brazilian national soccer team by “a major U.S. sportswear company.” Although investigators will not name the company, the indictment says the sportswear firm signed a 10-year, $160 million sponsorship deal with the Brazilian team in 1996, closely matching Nike’s clothes, shoes and equipment deal with the team that year.
Sepp Blatter is expected to win election for another term as president of FIFA next week, despite two of his rivals for the position, including former FIFA player of the year Luis Figo, reportedly stepping aside to give more votes to a different candidate. This situation is dismaying to many outside of the soccer governing body’s inner circle, including John Oliver.
But the comedian at least has an impressive soapbox from which to air his grievances: his “Last Week Tonight” show And so it was that the Brit, who has taken issue with Blatter’s governance before, really let the 79-year-old FIFA chief have it.
“We’re struck by just how long this went on for and how it touched nearly every part of what FIFA did,” an unnamed law enforcement official told the New York Times. “It just seemed to permeate every element of the federation and was just their way of doing business. It seems like this corruption was institutionalized.”
A 47-count indictment unsealed by the Justice Department charges 14 men with racketeering, bribery, money laundering and fraud. Four of the accused have already pleaded guilty. The Times identified the soccer officials as Jeffrey Webb, Eugenio Figueredo, Jack Warner, Eduardo Li, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, Rafael Esquivel, José Maria Marin and Nicolás Leoz.
Sports-marketing executives Alejandro Burzaco, Aaron Davidson, Hugo Jinkis and Mariano Jinkis were expected to be charged, according to the Times. José Margulies was charged as an intermediary who facilitated illegal payments.
Soccer’s world governing body has no plans to reconsider its decision to award the next two World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar in the wake of U.S. and Swiss probes into high-level corruption including the bidding process, FIFA’s spokesman said Wednesday.
While FIFA is standing firm behind the selections of Russia for 2018 and Qatar four years later, the Swiss indictments specifically target alleged wrongdoing in picking the host countries and are certain to bring increased pressure over the decisions.
Among the “alleged schemes,” said the Justice Department, were kickbacks to FIFA officials by executives and companies involved in soccer marketing and “bribes and kickbacks in connection” with “the selection of the host country for the 2010 World Cup and the 2011 FIFA presidential election,” the Justice Department said.
Swiss prosecutors, in a related announcement, said they had opened criminal proceedings against unidentified individuals on suspicion of mismanagement and money laundering related to the awarding of rights to host the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.