A criminal investigation is to be launched into the awarding of hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
In an unexpected development, Fifa has asked the Swiss authorities to launch a criminal inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the bidding processes, which ultimately saw the tournaments given to Russia and Qatar.
The move, which follows days of criticism of Fifa for allegedly covering up its own evidence of corruption in the bidding, raises the prospect that some of football’s most prominent current and former administrators could face criminal charges.
Announcing the referral to Switzerland’s Office of the Attorney General, Fifa’s president, Sepp Blatter, said internal inquiries had discovered “grounds for suspicion that, in isolated cases, international transfers of assets with connections to Switzerland took place”.
Fifa’s own investigation into alleged corruption – by the US lawyer Michael Garcia – did not have the authority to compel people to give evidence. Individuals who could now be interviewed by police include several members of the 22-strong committee who voted in 2010 to award the two tournaments to Russia and Qatar and who have since left Fifa after different corruption allegations.
The Swiss authorities, Fifa said in a statement, “will have the ability to conduct investigations under application of criminal procedural coercive measures”.
Findings of the Fifa report
The decision four years ago to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a country with no football history and not a single suitable stadium, has been described as the most controversial in the history of football. Anger has grown in recent months, with the realisation that Europe’s powerful domestic leagues may have to suspend their seasons so the tournament can be played in the cooler winter months.
In awarding the tournament to Qatar, Fifa ignored the advice of its own medical officers which stated that a tournament in June and July in the desert heat would be dangerous to players’ health. Fifa has since made clear it will have to move the tournament to a winter date.
Human rights campaigners have also been heavily critical of the appalling treatment of migrant workers building the stadiums.
Neither Mr Blatter, nor Hans-Joachim Eckert, the German judge who heads Fifa’s Ethics Committee and who recommended the complaint be lodged, have disclosed the identities of the individuals potentially of interest to investigators, or which of the various bids for the two tournaments the complaints concern.
Russia and Qatar won the double vote for the two tournaments, but Fifa’s summary of Mr Garcia’s investigation into the affair was more critical of England and Australia’s failed bids than it was the two winners.
In making the recommendation to call in the police, Mr Eckert, whose short summary of the investigation has been branded by Mr Garcia as “incomplete and erroneous”, said there is “insufficient incriminating evidence to justify calling into question the entire award process”, a sentiment echoed by Mr Blatter, who reiterated his view that the bidding process has “concluded”.
In the past four years, five of the 22 members who voted for Russia and Qatar have left Fifa amid allegations of corruption. Among them are Mohamed bin Hammam, the Qatari football administrator who had no official role in the bid but who is widely seen as having been instrumental in having secured it.
Others are the Trinidadian Jack Warner and American Chuck Blazer. The Swiss authorities will not have an easy time compelling any of these men to speak to them, though they can investigate whatever bank accounts the men or their families may have held in Switzerland.
But whatever investigations they do make will almost certainly be highly time consuming, with tournament preparations ongoing in both nations all the while, increasing the practical difficulty for the locations to be changed.
Among those still on the committee are the Cameroonian Issa Hayatou, who was accused by Panorama of having taken bribes in the 1990s, which he denied.
The announcement comes before Mr Garcia and Mr Eckert’s scheduled meeting on Thursday. The pair are not believed to have spoken since the American condemned the German’s summary of his report for containing “numerous incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts” .
Mr Eckert dismissed the suggestion made by Simon Johnson, the head of England’s 2018 bid, that the summary had been a “politically motivated whitewash”.
“I can only work with the material contained in it,” he said. “And in my view, there was insufficient clear evidence of illegal or irregular conduct that would call into question the integrity of the award process as a whole.”
This latest development will only increase pressure on Fifa to publish Mr Garcia’s report in full as many have demanded.
Mr Blatter said that to do so, even in redacted form, would be illegal given the promise of anonymity that was given to those who took part. “The people who are demanding in the media and elsewhere that Fifa publish the report are obviously of the opinion that Fifa should or must ignore the law in this regard,” he said. Mr Blatter said he had not seen the report, but confirmed that it will be passed in its entirety to the Swiss authorities.Reuse content