Generations of top-ranking Fifa officials have engaged in “rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted” corruption which has poisoned world football for decades, it was claimed, as two separate criminal investigations sparked the biggest crisis in the history of the sport.
Nine officials at football’s powerful governing body accepted bribes and kickbacks totalling hundreds of millions of dollars over more than 20 years, in return for awarding lucrative tournaments to certain countries and rigging Fifa’s own presidential elections, US prosecutors said.
On the same day, Swiss authorities announced a separate investigation into “criminal mismanagement” and money laundering surrounding the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in Russia and Qatar, throwing the future of both tournaments into doubt.
With only 48 hours to go until Fifa’s latest presidential elections, a 47-count charge sheet filed in a New York federal court detailed 12 separate corrupt schemes allegedly carried out by the officials. In total, they are alleged to have accepted bribes amounting to more than $150m over a 24-year period beginning in 1991.
One of the schemes allegedly involved the soliciting of a $10 million bribe from the South African government ahead of its successful bid for the 2010 World Cup. Another involved the alleged rigging of Fifa’s 2011 presidential elections by Jack Warner, a former Trinidadian politician and Fifa vice-president. Trinidad and Tobago issued a warrant for his arrest following a request from the US and he later turned himself in.
Mr Warner was later released on $2.5m (£1.6m) bail.
According to the indictment, Mr Warner arranged for envelopes containing $40,000 in cash to be given as a “gift” to officials in return for their votes. He is alleged to have told colleagues: “There are some people here who think they are more pious than thou. If you’re pious, open a church, friends. Our business is our business.” In a statement he said he was “innocent of any charges”.
At a press conference, Chief Richard Weber of the IRS Criminal Investigation unit described what the men had done as “the World Cup of fraud”. US Attorney General Loretta Lynch added that the officials had used their positions of trust to solicit bribes “over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament”.
“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” she added. “It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.”
The nine arrested Fifa officials, who are charged with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies, include one of the body’s vice presidents, Jeffrey Webb, long regarded as a voice for reform. The Cayman Islander has previously argued for the release of Fifa’s internal report into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which has never been made public.
Seven of the officials, including Mr Webb, were arrested in an early morning raid at the five-star Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich, carried out by Swiss authorities at the request of the US. Six of the seven are contesting extradition proceedings, which are already under way. Five other men, including four executives of sports management companies, have also been charged.
US prosecutors said the charges were “not the final chapter” in its efforts to root out the corruption in world football. “It is not over. The work will continue until all of the corruption is uncovered and a message is sent around the world,” FBI Director James Comey said.
While the officials were being arrested, Swiss police investigating “irregularities” in the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar raided Fifa’s headquarters in Zurich to gather data and documents. The two investigations were launched simultaneously to avoid any possible collusion between the suspects.
Swiss prosecutors said they had opened criminal proceedings “against persons unknown” on suspicion of “criminal mismanagement and of money laundering” in connection with the allocation of the two tournaments.
Fifa’s current president Sepp Blatter, who is standing for re-election on Friday, was not arrested. But Andre Marty, a spokesman for the Office of the Swiss Attorney General, said he “could be questioned” in the coming weeks. “Theoretically, every person involved in the allocation of the World Cups might be questioned,” he added.
The body is under mounting pressure to postpone the election, with Uefa’s general secretary Gianni Infantino calling for it to be delayed by six months. But Fifa insisted it would go ahead as planned.
Spokesman Walter de Gregorio claimed that the criminal charges were “good” for the organisation. “It is not good in terms of image or reputation, but in terms of cleaning up, this is good…. It is not a nice day, but it is also a good day. The process goes on and we are looking forward,” he said.
In a statement, Fifa said it “welcomes actions that can help contribute to rooting out any wrongdoing in football”, adding: “We are pleased to see that the investigation is being energetically pursued for the good of football and believe that it will help to reinforce measures that Fifa has already taken.”
Fifa’s Ethics Committee announced that it had “provisionally” banned 11 of the 14 men from carrying out any football-related activities in light of the allegations.
However, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, who is standing against Mr Blatter, said it was time for a change at the top of the sport’s governing body. “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. “Fifa needs leadership that… accepts responsibility for its actions and does not pass blame.”
Damian Collins, the Conservative MP who has campaigned for the reform of Fifa, described Mr Blatter as “the most despicable man in sport” and urged him to stand down. He also called for new votes on the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to be held in light of the claims.
“Over the years they’ve sought to dismiss out of hand any suggestion of widespread wrongdoing in the organisation... and here we are today in this terrible mess they have created themselves,” he said. “This is doing immense damage to world football and it has to stop, with Blatter going and a re-run of the World Cup rights vote. People within Fifa should not be surprised at all. This is the end for them.”
Key points: what the indictment says
Fifa 2011 presidential election
The former Fifa vice president Jack Warner attempted to rig 2011 presidential elections by paying delegates to vote for his preferred candidate, the indictment claims. Mr Warner is alleged to have arranged for envelopes containing $40,000 (£26,000) in cash to be given as a “gift” to officials in return for their votes.
After hearing that one of them had talked, it is claimed Mr Warner said: “There are some people here who think they are more pious than thou. If you’re pious, open a church. Our business is our business.” In a statement issued yesterday he said he was “innocent of any charges”.
The 2010 world cup
A bribery bidding war broke out in 2004 prior to the awarding of the 2010 finals to South Africa, the indictment claims. Jack Warner, then the president of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, reportedly travelled to Morocco which was bidding to be hosts, where a bid committee offered to pay him $1m in exchange for his vote. The South African government was also prepared to pay $10m to “support the African diaspora”, the indictment states – a sum which was in fact offered in exchange for the votes of Mr Warner and two others.
The sportswear deal
The indictment claims bribes were paid to secure the sponsorship rights to the Brazilian national team for a US sportswear company after the 1994 World Cup. It is understood a middleman was involved rather than the company itself. Nike, sponsors of the Brazilian team since 1996, did not return requests for comment last night. The court document says tens of millions of dollars in bribes were also paid to South American Fifa officials to secure media and marketing rights to tournaments. Bribes were also paid to Concacaf officials to secure similar rights to Caribbean football tournaments, it says.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies