The U.S. Department of Justice came down like a ton of bricks on several FIFA officials Tuesday night in Zurich, Switzerland (at the palatial Baur au Lac Hotel, above), where the FIFA elections (a dog-and-pony show to re-elect President Sepp Blatter) are to be held.
It’s an earth-shaking event in the soccer world, even though no one quite knows what the further-reaching implications will be so early into this story. We do know that Blatter was not arrested, but that at least seven other FIFA officials were, and the DOJ’s indictment lists 14 total.
The New York Times reports the indictments are for racketeering, conspiracy and corruption, and the breakdown of those facing charges goes like this:
- Jeffrey Webb and Jack Warner, current and former presidents of CONCACAF, the branch of FIFA that oversees North and Central America
- Nicolas Leoz, former president of CONMEBOL, the branch of FIFA that oversees South America
- Six current and former chief executives for national soccer federations (Costa Rica, Uruguay, Venezuela, Brazil, Nicaragua and Cayman Islands)
- Four marketing executives in North and South America (one of whom was also chairman of the board of the North American Soccer Federation)
- One alleged intermediary, or bagman
Zurich police, who performed the arrests and extraditions to the U.S., released this statement regarding the charges:
The bribery suspects – representatives of sports-media and sports-promotion firms – are alleged to have been involved in schemes to make payments to the soccer functionaries – delegates of FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) and other functionaries of FIFA sub-organizations –totaling more than USD 100 million. In return, it is believed that they received media, marketing, and sponsorship rights in connection with soccer tournaments in Latin America. According to the US request, these crimes were agreed and prepared in the U.S., and payments were carried out via U.S. banks.
Some tournaments in question include the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the Copa America, a joint venture with CONCACAF and CONMEBOL. The U.S. national teams have participated in both of those events. There has been no official word about whether any of the indictments will be related to the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups (in Russia and Qatar, respectively) and the suspected bribery involved in both processes (don’t even bother asking about the human-rights violations either).
Since this is going to be a U.S. federal case, the fact that the crime must have taken place on U.S. “soil” (a term that’s been used loosely for prosecutions before) restricts what the DOJ can prosecute.
Many of the officials arrested (most notably Jack Warner and Nicolas Leoz) resigned from their FIFA posts in the past few years in the wake of widespread corruption and bribery charges. Due to FIFA bylaws at the time, their resignations closed their respective ethics investigations that FIFA was conducting. They have no such recourse against the U.S. government. ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap has an idea for why these arrests happened now:
That would imply that the crimes under investigation took place in 2011 or so (the year Warner resigned, and a year or two before the other resignees). Amazingly, FIFA elections are still to be held this week, and Sepp Blatter is still expected to retain his post. His only remaining opponent, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, is seemingly content to let proceedings go on as planned.
FIFA says it’s fully cooperating with the investigation, and a couple of executives have publicly stated that they welcome the attention, and you can almost hear the relief in their voices. Those who avoided arrest seem to think that they got off scot-free, and maybe they have. FIFA’s a massive, international non-governmental organization, which means that no law-enforcement system exists to oversee the operation as a whole.
Even though this is a big win for the DOJ and the muscles it flexed, it might not be much more than an annoyance for FIFA and Sepp Blatter, the corrupt dictator at the heart of it all.
With these arrests and the widespread reports of unconscionable treatment of workers in Qatar the same week as the FIFA elections, Blatter should be a lame duck, or at least feeling the heat. Instead, it’s business as usual.