May 27, 2015
Seven of the most powerful figures in global soccer faced extradition to the United States on corruption charges after their arrest on Wednesday in Switzerland, where authorities also announced a criminal investigation into the awarding of the next two World Cups.
The world's most popular sport was plunged into turmoil after U.S. and Swiss authorities announced separate inquiries into the activities of the game's powerful governing body, FIFA.
U.S. authorities said nine soccer officials and five sports media and promotions executives faced corruption charges involving more than $150 million in bribes. In pursuit of the U.S. case, Swiss police arrested seven FIFA officials who are now awaiting extradition to the United States.
U.S. officials gave details of a case in which they said they exposed complex money laundering schemes, found millions of dollars in untaxed incomes and tens of millions in offshore accounts held by FIFA officials.
At a New York press conference, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said authorities were seeking the arrest of other people in connection with the case.
One of those indicted, former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner of Trinidad, solicited $10 million in bribes from the South African government to host the 2010 World Cup, the Justice Department said. Warner issued a statement saying he is innocent of any charges.
Those arrested did not include Sepp Blatter, the Swiss head of FIFA, but included several just below him in the hierarchy of sport's wealthiest body. Lynch said the U.S. was not charging Blatter at this time.
Of the 14 indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice, seven FIFA officials, including Vice-President Jeffrey Webb, were being held in Zurich. Four people and two corporate defendants had already pleaded guilty to various charges, the department said.
The Miami, Florida, headquarters of CONCACAF - the soccer federation that governs North America, Central America and the Caribbean - were being searched on Wednesday, the DoJ said.
"As charged in the indictment, the defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world," said FBI Director James Comey. "Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks, and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA."
The FIFA officials appeared to have walked into a trap set by U.S. and Swiss authorities. The arrests were made at dawn at a plush Zurich hotel, the Baur au Lac, where FIFA officials are staying before a vote this week that is expected to anoint Blatter for a fifth term in office. Suites at the hotel cost up to $4,000 a night.
FIFA called the arrests a "difficult moment" but said Blatter would seek another term as FIFA head as planned and the upcoming World Cups would go ahead as intended.
Separate from the U.S. investigation, Swiss prosecutors said they had opened their own criminal proceedings against unidentified people on suspicion of mismanagement and money laundering related to the awarding of rights to host the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 event in Qatar.
Data and documents were seized from computers at FIFA's Zurich headquarters, the Swiss prosecutors said.
Officials said that following the arrests, accounts at several banks in Switzerland had been blocked.
The U.S. Department of Justice named those arrested in its case as: Webb, Eduardo Li, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, another FIFA Vice-President, Eugenio Figueredo, Rafael Esquivel and José Maria Marin.
An authoritative source said their extradition could take years if it was contested.
The DoJ said the defendants included U.S. and South American sports marketing executives alleged to have paid and agreed to pay "well over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to obtain lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments".
"The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States," Lynch said in a statement.
"It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks," she said.
The guilty pleas were those of Charles Blazer, a former U.S. representative on FIFA's executive committee, and José Hawilla, owner of the Traffic Group, a sports marketing firm, and two of his companies.
The international governing body of soccer collects billions of dollars in revenue, mostly from sponsorship and television rights for World Cups.
It has been dogged by reports of corruption which it says it investigates itself, but until now it has escaped major criminal cases in any country.
In particular, the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar, a tiny desert country with no domestic tradition of soccer, was heavily criticized by soccer officials in Western countries. FIFA was forced to acknowledge that it is too hot to play soccer there in the summer when the tournament is traditionally held, forcing schedules around the globe to be rewritten to move the event.
Qatar's stock market fell sharply as news of the Swiss investigation emerged. A Russian official said his country would still host the 2018 World Cup.
Three years ago FIFA hired a former U.S. prosecutor to examine allegations of bribery over the awarding of the World Cups to Qatar and Russia. However, last year it refused to publish his report, releasing only a summary in which it said there were no major irregularities. The investigator quit, saying his report had been mischaracterized.
Most of the arrested officials are in Switzerland for the FIFA Congress, where Blatter faces a challenge from Jordan's Prince Ali bin Al Hussein in the election on Friday to lead the organization. Other potential challengers to Blatter have all dropped out the race.
Prince Ali, who has promised to clean up FIFA if elected to the top job, said it was "a sad day for football" and called for leadership in the world body that could restore the confidence of hundreds of millions of fans around the world.
English Football Association Chairman Greg Dyke said Wednesday's developments were "very serious for FIFA and its current leadership". England had nominated Prince Ali as a candidate to succeed Blatter and would be backing him if the FIFA leadership vote went ahead.
U.S. law gives its courts broad powers to investigate crimes committed by foreigners on foreign soil if money passes through U.S. banks or other activity takes place there.
Damian Collins, a British member of parliament who founded the reform group New FIFA Now, said the arrests could have a massive impact on the governing body.
"The chickens are finally coming home to roost and this sounds like a hugely significant development for FIFA," he told Reuters.
"It proves that Sepp Blatter's promises over the last few years to look into corruption at FIFA have not materialized and because he has totally failed to do this, it has been left to an outside law enforcement agency to do the job and take action."
The arrests could also have implications for sponsorship.
German sportswear company Adidas, long associated with FIFA, said the soccer body should do more to establish transparent compliance standards.