US, Swiss target top soccer officials in corruption probe
ZURICH (AP) — The U.S. government launched an attack on what it called deep-seated and brazen corruption in soccer’s global governing body Wednesday, pulling FIFA executives out of a luxury Swiss hotel to face racketeering charges and raiding regional offices in Miami.
Swiss officials also invaded FIFA headquarters, seizing records and computers to investigate whether the decisions to award World Cups to Russia and Qatar were rigged.
Scandals and rumors of corruption have dogged FIFA throughout the 17-year reign of its president, Sepp Blatter, but he was not named in either investigation. He is scheduled to stand Friday for re-election to a fifth, four-year term, and the organization said the vote will go ahead as planned, despite the turmoil.
FIFA also ruled out a revote of the World Cup bids won by Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.
“We welcome the actions and the investigations by the U.S. and Swiss authorities and believe that it will help to reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken to root out any wrongdoing in football,” Blatter said in a statement. The organization said it was cooperating fully with the investigation, and one American prosecutor said the charges were only the beginning.
Some of the biggest names in soccer said they had complained for years about corruption in FIFA, which oversees the world’s most popular sport and generates billions in revenue each year.
“I was treated like a crazy person,” former soccer great Diego Maradona told radio station Radio La Red in Buenos Aires. “Now the FBI has told the truth.”
Former Brazilian star Romario, an outspoken FIFA critic, said “someone had to eventually arrest them one day.”
Authorities conducted early-morning raids in Zurich at FIFA headquarters and the five-star Baur au Lac Hotel. In Miami, FBI and IRS agents carried computers and boxes out of the headquarters of CONCACAF, the governing body of North and Central America and the Caribbean, whose past and current presidents were among 14 defendants named in a 47-count indictment filled with corruption charges that include wire fraud, money laundering and racketeering conspiracy.
Swiss police arrested seven soccer officials at the request of American prosecutors and threatened them with extradition to the U.S. Four other soccer and marketing officials and two corporate entities agreed to plead guilty, and prosecutors said they agreed to forfeit more than $150 million in illegal profits.
“Beginning in 1991, two generations of soccer officials ... used their positions of trust within their respective organizations to solicit bribes from sports marketers in exchange for the commercial rights to their soccer tournaments,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in New York. “They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament.”
Richard Weber, head of the IRS Criminal Division, called the case “the World Cup of fraud.”
Kelly T. Currie, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said the 161-page indictment detailed decades of “brazen corruption” and said prosecutors will probe the role of banks involved.
“The ultimate victim is soccer at large: it’s the fans, it’s the organization,” Currie said. “The reason that these people were able to make so much money corruptly is just the love people have for the sport.”
Two current FIFA vice presidents were among those arrested and indicted, Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands and Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay. The others are Eduardo Li of Costa Rica, Julio Rocha of Nicaragua, Costas Takkas of Britain, Rafael Esquivel of Venezuela and Jose Maria Marin of Brazil.
All seven are connected with CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, South America’s governing body, and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
FIFA suspended 11 people, including Webb and Figueredo, from all soccer-related activities.
Webb called himself a reformer when he was elected as CONCACAF president in 2012. Prosecutors alleged part of the bribe money directed to Webb was transferred to the account of a contractor building a swimming pool at Webb’s home in Loganville, Georgia.
The Swiss justice ministry said six of the seven officials arrested oppose extradition to the United States. American authorities have 40 days to submit the formal extradition request.
Four of the men indicted are sports marketing executives and another works in broadcasting. Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice president from Trinidad and Tobago, was among those indicted, and he turned himself in to police in Port-of-Spain after they issued an arrest warrant at the request of U.S. authorities.
The Justice Department cited bribes and kickbacks involving media rights deals involving World Cup qualifying matches in the Caribbean and Central America; the Copa America, South America’s continental national team championship; the Copa Libertadores, the continent’s club championship; plus the CONCACAF Gold Cup and Champions League.
Prosecutors said that when CONMEBOL reached agreements on Copa America deals worth $352.5 million with a new company named Datisa, that company agreed to pay $110 million in bribes to South American soccer officials.
A dozen schemes were detailed in the indictment, including $10 million in payments from a FIFA account that ultimately benefited Warner following his 2004 vote for South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup. With the backing of Nelson Mandela, South Africa beat rival bids from Morocco and Egypt to host that tournament.
The Swiss prosecutors’ office said the U.S. probe was separate from its investigation but that authorities were working together.
The votes to award the World Cups to Russia and Qatar have been surrounded in controversy and accusations of corruption.
The Swiss prosecutors’ office said it seized “electronic data and documents” at FIFA’s headquarters as part of the probe. Swiss police said they will question 10 FIFA executive committee members who took part in the World Cup votes in December 2010.
Qatar, a tiny Gulf nation with little soccer tradition, was criticized as a host because of its extreme summer heat. FIFA has since been forced to move the tournament to November-December instead of the usual June-July slot.
FIFA hired former U.S. attorney Michael Garcia to investigate the 2018 and 2022 bid process. His findings were never fully released and both Russia and Qatar were confirmed as hosts. Garcia’s full report was not released but was turned over to Swiss authorities in November.
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, also a FIFA executive committee member, told The Associated Press: “We’ve got nothing to hide. We’re prepared to show everything. We’ve always acted within the law.”
Qatari soccer officials declined comment.
Hundreds of soccer officials are in Switzerland for the FIFA congress, where Blatter is widely expected to win re-election.
Nike, which is not a FIFA sponsor but pays to have the Brazilian and other countries’ national teams wear its gear, said it is cooperating with the U.S. investigation.
European soccer’s governing body said the election should be postponed and that it would consider boycotting the FIFA congress following the arrests. UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino said the corruption investigations “tarnish the image of football as a whole.” In a sign of the loyalty that Blatter enjoys, however, the Asian Football Confederation opposed a delay and repeated its support for the 79-year-old president.
Blatter’s only opponent in Friday’s election, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, seized on the situation to push his candidacy.
“We cannot continue with the crisis in FIFA, a crisis that has been ongoing and is not just relevant to the events of today,” he said in a statement. “FIFA needs leadership that governs, guides and protects our national associations. ... Leadership that restores confidence in the hundreds of millions of football fans around the world.”
AP Sports Writer Rob Harris and Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Zurich, and AP Sports Writer Ronald Blum in New York and Associated Press writer Curt Anderson in Miami contributed to this report.