The US government arrested more than a dozen top soccer officials and marketing executives around the world today, charging that officials in FIFA – world soccer's governing body – have engaged in rampant and systematic corruption, involving millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks, for nearly 25 years.
Seven top soccer officials were arrested at a five-star hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, in a dramatic early morning raid. These officials were taken into custody as part of a multinational swoop by law enforcement on FIFA headquarters around the world.
The arrests were made at the request of the US Department of Justice, which has been investigating FIFA for years. In a separate case, the Swiss attorney general's office seized data from FIFA's main office in Zurich related to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Simultaneous to the arrests in Switzerland, the FBI was executing a search warrant on the Miami headquarters of CONCACAF, FIFA's regional confederation overseeing the Americas and the Caribbean.
Taking advantage of terrorism laws, US officials framed these prosecutions as part of a much larger, ongoing fight against corruption and fraud that makes use of the US financial system.
"If you touch our shores with your corrupt enterprise … you will be held accountable for that corruption," said FBI Director James Comey, said at a news conference in Brooklyn on Wednesday.
"There is a danger that cynicism creeps into our lives and folks shrug and say, 'That's the way things are,' " he added. "That may be way things are, but it’s not way things have to be."
The 47-count indictment levels charges at nine FIFA officials and five marketing executives, including racketeering, conspiracy, corruption, and wire fraud. Defendants include the current and former presidents of CONCACAF, Jeffrey Webb and Jack Warner, as well as Eugenio Figuredo, a current FIFA vice-president and executive committee member.
Four defendants have entered guilty pleas already, and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a press conference on Wednesday that law enforcement agencies are making more arrests in the investigation.
"All these defendants abused the US financial system and US law," said Ms. Lynch, "and we intend to hold them accountable."
If those men facing racketeering charges are found guilty, they could face up to 20 years in jail. The indictment also mentions 25 unnamed co-conspirators, including some linked to the 2010 South Africa World Cup bid committee.
FIFA is an international organization, but US law gives the Justice Department the authority to bring charges against foreign nationals for a variety of reasons. These laws, introduced so prosecutors can pursue international terrorism cases, gives the DOJ jurisdiction over any transactions made through its financial system or that were paid in dollars, or over illegal acts that were planned on US soil.
Lynch has been involved in the Justice investigation of FIFA for years. Before she was sworn in as attorney general last month, she was the US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, which led the investigation into the organization.
The seven officials arrested in Zurich this morning are named in the Justice Department’s indictment, opened this morning just minutes after the Swiss raid. Those officials will be extradited to the US to face their charges, Lynch said.
The US indictment alleges that FIFA officials have been engaged in corrupt practices since 1991, including bribes connected to the vote determining who would host the 2010 World Cup and to influence the outcome of FIFA's 2011 presidential election. The indictment also alleges that US and South American sports marketing executives "have systematically paid and agreed to pay well over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks to obtain lucrative media and marketing rights to international soccer tournaments."
These schemes involved meetings in America and using US wire facilities to distribute bribes, Lynch said.
While soccer is a minor but growing sport in America, US officials stressed this morning the investigation is not just about soccer.
"It's about following the law," said Rich Weber, head of the IRS Criminal Investigations Division. "Today is a good day for soccer fans, and it is a great day for the global fight against corruption, money laundering, and international tax evasion," Mr. Weber added.
Miami-based Traffic Sports USA is one of the soccer marketing companies implicated in the indictment. The company has been responsible for organizing and marketing dozens of FIFA competitions in recent years, including five of the last six CONCACAF Gold Cups, the CONCACAF Champions Cup, and the majority of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying matches.
Traffic USA executive Enrique Sanz was also appointed CONCACAF general secretary in the summer of 2012, succeeding Chuck Blazer, who had stepped down months earlier after he became mired in a FIFA ethics controversy. Aaron Davidson, Mr. Sanz's former business partner and president of Traffic Sports USA Inc., is one of the five sports marketing executives charged in the DOJ indictment.
The National Soccer Examiner reported at the time that there was “an expectation of increased transparency” with Mr. Sanz’s appointment.
Traffic Sports may not be the only US sports company in the crosshairs of US law enforcement.
Sports apparel giant Nike, headquartered in Oregon, signed an estimated $150 million deal with the Brazilian Football Confederation in 1996, a deal that still stands, according to the Daily Mail. The DOJ said it found instances of bribery linked to commercial deals for national Brazil Cup matches and the national team’s contract with Nike, as well as $110 million in bribes linked to the planning of the 2016 Copa America tournament, which is being held in the US for the first time.
“The indictment also alleges that corruption and bribery extended to the 2011 FIFA presidential election, and to agreements regarding sponsorship of the Brazilian national soccer team by a major US sportswear company,” said Lynch.
Nike officials say they are cooperating with the investigation.
Mr. Blazer, a former FIFA ExCom member, appears to have played an important role in the investigation. In November 2013, he pled guilty to charges of racketeering conspiracy, wire fraud conspiracy, money laundering conspiracy, and income tax evasion. He also forfeited over $1.9 million as part of his plea and, according to The Economist, agreed to wear a wiretap at the request of investigators.
Kelly Currie – US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, where the case will be heard – called today's indictment "the beginning of our effort, not the end."
"We look forward to continuing our work with our international partners and anyone else who wants to work with us ... to rid global soccer of this type of corruption," added Mr. Currie.
Those on the scene in Zurich, where FIFA officials were gathering at the Baur au Lac Hotel for the organization's presidential election, described a subdued and relatively dignified police raid. Some officials were allowed to bring luggage with them. For at least one official, hotel staff held up white sheets to hide them from cameras as they were escorted out by law enforcement.
Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s president, is “not involved at all” in today’s criminal proceedings, the organization said. Mr. Blatter is standing for reelection on Friday, and FIFA said the election is still expected to go ahead on schedule. In 2011, he ran unopposed to win his fourth consecutive term despite only 66 of 207 FIFA members nominating him, an election that US officials now allege was influenced by bribery.
Although FIFA maintains a nonprofit status, it is known to have $1.5 billion in reserves and made $5.7 billion in profit from 2011 to 2014, according to the indictment.