By Shane Nicholson
Late Tuesday night word broke from Switzerland that plain clothes police officers had arrested “several top executives” from FIFA ahead of the governing body’s general meeting.
The New York Times reports that Swiss officers arrested the officials in their hotel rooms after they arrived for this week’s meetings which were expected to result in the re-election of President Sepp Blatter.
From The Times:
“As leaders of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, gathered for their annual meeting, more than a dozen plain-clothed Swiss law enforcement officials arrived unannounced at the Baur au Lac hotel, an elegant five-star property with views of the Alps and Lake Zurich.
“The officers went to the registration desk to get keys, then headed upstairs toward the hotel rooms.
“The charges allege widespread corruption in FIFA over the past two decades, involving bids for World Cups as well as marketing and broadcast deals, according to three law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the case. The charges include wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering. Prosecutors planned to unseal an indictment soon against more than 10 officials, not all of whom are in Zurich, law enforcement officials said.”
FIFA has come under fire recently for not stepping in to put an end to slave labor practices being used to prepare for Qatar’s World Cup bid in 2022. It was also revealed this week that Russia was prepared to use prison labor ahead of the 2018 tournament.
Blatter was not among the officials arrested but the FIFA President has avoided travel to the U.S. since 2011 over fears he would be detained as part of an ongoing FBI probe into corruption among the ranks of the world’s governing body.
It was expected that Friday would see the re-election of Blatter to a fifth term at the helm of FIFA but today’s news has thrown that into doubt. Not only are the arrests expected to place pressure on the Swiss-born leader but details as to who exactly was detained by Swiss police are yet to be released.
The Swiss Federal Office of Justice said that the investigation concentrated on “suspicion of bribes and kick-backs between the early 1990s and the present day.” Swiss officials carried out Wednesday morning’s operation at the request of the FBI.
Reports indicate that six officials have been arrested at this time, including current CONCACAF President and FIFA Vice President Jeffrey Webb. CONCACAF is the regional federation which governs the sport in the U.S.
Webb was recently re-elected to his post unopposed at a federation congress which saw speeches calling Blatter the “father of football” and comparing the FIFA supremo to Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill.
Initial reports indicated that 10 FIFA officials were set to be indicted by the Justice Department, including former CONCACAF chief Jack Warner, although that number has since climbed to 14.
“We have seen the media reports and and are seeking clarity in this matter,” a FIFA spokesman told reporters following the police action in Zurich. “We will make no further comment at this stage.”
FIFA reportedly holds over $1.5 billion in cash reserves on top of its massive revenue streams from events such as the World Cup. The practices of the body have been in the spotlight for years now as indications of corruption from top-down have run rampant.
A recent internal audit of the practices surrounding the awarding of both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups was heavily redacted and chief inspector Michael J. Garcia resigned his post as a result. Blatter at the time said that the 2018 and 2022 bids would not be revisited although the FBI’s investigation may now throw FIFA’s grasp on the host nations into a tailspin.
“We’re struck by just how long this went on for and how it touched nearly every part of what FIFA did,” a law enforcement official told The 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.”
The case which led to todays’s arrests has been spearheaded by new U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch who previously oversaw the investigation into FIFA corruption as the U.S. Attorney for Brooklyn.
The FBI and Justice Department are set to hold a press conference in New York Wednesday morning detailing the investigation and the arrests in Zurich.