Allegations of corruption at FIFA are nothing new to those who follow the international soccer organization. But what was surprising to some on Wednesday was the sense that someone, somewhere, was finally doing something substantial about them.
The U.S. Justice Department unsealed a 47-count indictment in federal court in Brooklyn that detailed charges against 14 people accused of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy.
The most serious are the racketeering charges, which allege that the officials turned soccer “into a criminal enterprise,” according to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who spoke to reporters in New York. A conviction could command a sentence of up to 20 years.
“The idea of being shocked about bribery and racketeering at FIFA is like being shocked about jumping into a pool and finding yourself wet,” said Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine.
“What makes this particularly different is the fact that this time it looks like the charges have real teeth. I mean, coming from the U.S. Department of Justice, that’s a first. That’s never happened before,” he said.
The complexity of the investigation Lynch described was evident by the federal officials accompanying her, including a U.S. attorney, FBI Director James Comey and Richard Weber, head of the IRS Criminal Investigation division.
“This really is the World Cup of fraud, and today we are issuing FIFA a red card,” Weber said.
FIFA officials are accused of taking bribes totaling more than $150 million and in return providing “lucrative media and marketing rights” to soccer tournaments as kickbacks over the past 24 years.
“The defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world,” Comey said in a statement. “Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA.”
The indictment “is the beginning of our work, not the end” of an effort to rid global soccer of corruption, said Kelly Currie, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
After the press conference, Chris Eaton, former FIFA head of security, said that U.S. officials have done “something that no other police organization or other region has done so far on FIFA.”
“The fact is there’s been no jurisdiction that was able to take a report, or to take action, or to coordinate a global action such as the U.S. has done today,” he said. “We’re seeing for the first time a very powerful jurisdiction take action against a very powerful, opaque organization, FIFA.”
Stan Collymore, a former member of England’s national team, said it’s a good thing Washington got involved in FIFA’s business. He wasn’t the only one saying so.
Extradition and next steps
The next step in the FIFA corruption investigation is extradition, whereby federal officials will attempt to bring suspects to the United States to face allegations they arranged bribes at meetings on U.S. soil, employed the U.S. banking system in conveying the bribes and created documents to cloak their activity, Lynch said.
“In short, these individuals, through these organizations, engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games, where the games would be held and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide,” she told reporters.
Among the decisions allegedly sullied by corruption, Lynch said, were the “sponsorship of the Brazilian national soccer team by a major U.S. sportswear company,” the 2011 FIFA presidential election and the placement of the 2010 World Cup.
“Around 2004, bidding began for the opportunity to host the 2010 World Cup, which was ultimately awarded to South Africa, the first time the tournament would be held on the African continent. But even for this historic event, FIFA executives and others corrupted the process by using bribes to influence the hosting decision,” she said.
The South African Football Association called the allegations baseless and promised to challenge them. Spokesman Dominic Chimhavi added, “Those individuals that brought the World Cup to South Africa were men of high integrity. Men like the late President Nelson Mandela and our former President Thabo Mbeki. The bidding process was never compromised.”
FIFA announced shortly after Lynch’s news conference that it was banning 11 individuals from “football-related activities” as a result of the investigation. Seven of them have already been arrested by Swiss authorities, while others on the list had previous indictments and guilty pleas unsealed Wednesday.
The list also included former presidents of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, the governing bodies for soccer in North America and the Caribbean, and South America, respectively.
In addition to the U.S. probe into corruption that Lynch earlier called “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted,” soccer’s powerful governing body also finds itself on the end of a Swiss investigation into World Cup bidding.
Swiss authorities raided FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich on Wednesday, the same day they announced an investigation into the last two awarded World Cup bids — to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 — both of which have been under fire since they were announced in 2010.
But the day’s more definitive and, right now, damning action came out of the United States.
Seven people were arrested Wednesday in Zurich with help from Swiss authorities, Lynch said. Among them was Jeffrey Webb, a FIFA vice president and head of CONCACAF, the governing body for North America and the Caribbean.
Authorities executed a search warrant at CONCACAF’s Florida office Wednesday morning, Lynch said.
The majority of those arrested are contesting extradition to the United States, Switzerland’s Federal Office of Justice said. Though Lynch cited seven arrests, the Swiss office’s statement mentioned only six.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter is not one of those arrested or facing charges by U.S. authorities, but he was among those investigated.
Asked if the U.S. investigation had cleared Blatter, Lynch told reporters, “I’m not able to comment further on Mr. Blatter’s status.” Officials said earlier Wednesday that the investigation into Blatter’s possible involvement continues.
Blatter said in a statement that FIFA welcomes the investigations by U.S. and Swiss authorities, and he believes their inquiries “will help to reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken to root out any wrongdoing in football.” In fact, he said, the Swiss investigation was “set in motion” when FIFA submitted a dossier to authorities last year. He did not elaborate.
“Such misconduct has no place in football, and we will ensure that those who engage in it are put out of the game,” Blatter said. “We will continue to work with the relevant authorities and we will work vigorously within FIFA in order to root out any misconduct, to regain your trust and ensure that football worldwide is free from wrongdoing.”
Nor will the specter of a scandal stop executives from soccer’s scandal-plagued governing body from gathering Friday possibly to elect Blatter to a fifth term despite questions raised by Greg Dyke, the head of Britain’s Football Association, in light of Wednesday’s developments.
However, European football’s governing body, UEFA, said its member associations should consider whether to attend the upcoming FIFA World Congress, which it said should be postponed. UEFA further called for “new FIFA presidential elections to be organized within the next six months.”
The plans for future World Cups in Qatar, which has been dogged by criticism for its treatment of foreign workers rushing to build stadiums, and Russia are still on as well, FIFA spokesman Walter De Gregorio said.
Yet Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan, one of those challenging Blatter for FIFA’s presidency, said Wednesday, “We cannot continue with the crisis.”
“FIFA needs leadership that governs, guides and protects our national associations,” said Ali, who has in the past blasted what he calls FIFA’s culture of intimidation. “Leadership that accepts responsibility for its actions and does not pass blame. Leadership that restores confidence in the hundreds of millions of football fans around the world.”
De Gregorio scarcely mentioned the U.S. indictment at his news conference, though he did put a positive spin on the Swiss investigation.
“This for FIFA is good,” he said. “It is not good in terms of image, and it’s not good in terms of reputation, but in terms of cleaning up, in terms of everything that we did in the last four years.”
Former FIFA VP among those indicted
Six of those indicted in the United States have current ties to FIFA, while another, Jack Warner, is a former FIFA vice president and ex-president of CONCACAF. Others connected to soccer bodies in North America, South America and the Caribbean are sports marketing executives and, in one case, the person works in the broadcasting business.
Warner said in a statement that he had not been interviewed as part of the investigation, declared his innocence and said, “The actions of FIFA no longer concern me.”
“The people of Trinidad and Tobago will know that I quit FIFA and international football more than four years ago and that over the past several years, I have recommitted my life to the work of improving the lot of every citizen of every creed and race in this nation. This is where I have let my bucket down,” he said. “I have fought fearlessly against all forms of injustice and corruption.”
According to a video aired by CNN affiliate CNC3, Warner arrived at a Port-of-Spain police station in Trinidad and Tobago on Wednesday. The government has received a request from the U.S. government for Warner’s extradition.
In May 2011, Warner and fellow FIFA member Mohammed bin Hammam of Qatar were suspended by FIFA’s Ethics Committee, pending the outcome of an investigation of corruption allegations against them.
Warner resigned from his position the following month, and FIFA announced that “all Ethics Committee procedures against him have been closed and the presumption of innocence is maintained.”
The Justice Department on Wednesday also unsealed information on four people and two “corporate defendants” who pleaded guilty to various charges in recent years.
One of them, Charles Blazer, a former member of the FIFA Executive Committee, “decided early on to use his position for personal gain,” and between 2005 and 2010 amassed $11 million in unreported income, said the IRS’ Weber.
Also included are Warner’s sons Daryll, a former FIFA development officer who pleaded guilty in 2013 to two counts related to wire fraud and structuring of financial transactions, and Daryan, who has forfeited $1.1 million as part of his plea and will forfeit an undisclosed sum when he is sentenced for wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and the structuring of financial transactions.
The owner of the Brazilian sports marketing company Traffic Group, Jose Hawilla, also saw his 2014 indictment unsealed. At that time, he agreed to forfeit $151 million while pleading guilty to racketeering, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy and obstruction of justice.
Details on the Swiss investigation were not as readily available.
“The Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG) has opened criminal proceedings against persons unknown on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and of money laundering in connection with the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 Football World Cups,” the office said Wednesday. “In the course of said proceedings, electronic data and documents were seized today at FIFA’s head office in Zurich.”
The same office added later that it has blocked accounts at banks in Switzerland where alleged bribes flowed and seized related bank documents.
Swiss federal police will question Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko about how FIFA awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, an official with knowledge of the investigation has confirmed to CNN.
Mutko is one of 10 people who took part in the voting and is being investigated, according to Swiss authorities.
The attorney general’s office of Switzerland said it is looking into criminal mismanagement and money laundering as part of its investigation into the 2018 and 2022 bids.
“The files seized today and the collected bank documents will serve criminal proceedings both in Switzerland and abroad,” a statement from the attorney general’s office said.
England was one of the countries that submitted a failed bid for the 2018 World Cup, while the United States saw its 2022 bid shot down. Soccer bodies in both countries issued statements regarding Wednesday’s developments, though the U.S. Soccer Federation said it wouldn’t comment on specifics.
“There is no higher priority, and nothing more important, than protecting the integrity of our game. We are committed to the highest ethical standards and business practices, and we will continue to encourage CONCACAF and FIFA to promote the same values,” the U.S. federation said.
FIFA has cleared itself
FIFA has been at the center of corruption investigations for years, but the organization has long dismissed allegations that top officials were on the take.
In December, FIFA’s Ethics Committee said it was closing its investigation into alleged corruption in the 2018 and 2022 bidding process that awarded the World Cup to Russia and Qatar, respectively.
Criticism immediately followed. There were allegations of corruption in the bidding process. Qatar’s oppressive heat also drew ridicule, as did its labor rights record.
FIFA said its investigation found no corruption and it had no reason to reopen the bidding process.
In December 2012, FIFA banned for life bin Hammam, the Qatari member of its top governing body who had previously been suspended, along with Warner for ethics violations.
CNN’s Dana Ford, Jason Hanna, Ed Payne, Brent Swails, Rick Martin, Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz and Harry Reekie contributed to this report.