Fifa arrests: Is it the final whistle for corruption in world football?

Dawn raid in Switzerland at behest of US adds new meaning to the term ‘global policeman’

Mary Dejevsky
Thursday 28 May 2015 10:53 BST
Sepp Blatter and Vladimir Putin. Was Russia awarded the 2018 World Cup unfairly?
Sepp Blatter and Vladimir Putin. Was Russia awarded the 2018 World Cup unfairly? (Reuters)

There can be few people, except the seven raised so peremptorily from their beds at the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich, who did not feel at very least a frisson of vindication. Here were the super-smart Swiss police mounting a dawn raid on a five-star hotel at the request of the US Justice Department, and hauling away some of the most powerful individuals in global sport.

Small matter that football enjoys nothing like the following in the US that it enjoys elsewhere. Small matter, too, that the two men due to contest the presidency of the international footballing federation, Fifa, on Friday were exempt from the round-up and permitted to sleep on. The spectacle was dramatic, the timing delicious, and the message – that the final whistle may be about to blow on corruption at the top of the superannuated international football establishment – impossible to ignore.

Within minutes of the news breaking, the accolades for the US-instigated action were piling up in the social media, as they continue to do. Fifa luminaries might be declaring “a sad day” for international football, but popular sympathy was limited. Although Fifa’s President, Sepp Blatter, a Swiss, had a challenger for his re-election this time in the shape of Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein of Jordan, the expectations were that the octogenarian incumbent would be crowned for a fifth time. It was indicative that in recent days, Western commentators had largely given up rehearsing Blatter’s shortcomings and turned to trying to explain his appeal instead.

The seemingly perpetual stagnation in Fifa’s hierarchy was one reason for the widespread glee at its very public embarrassment yesterday. The surprise intervention of law enforcement meant that there was suddenly something to play for. But the satisfaction was multiplied many times over, because earlier efforts to pin down and purge what was widely seen as Fifa’s ingrained corruption had one way or another come to nothing.

The most recent was an investigation sanctioned by Fifa itself, as part of a reputational clean-up initiative. Michael Garcia, a former US attorney, was appointed chairman of the investigative branch of Fifa’s ethics committee (always beware long titles), and set out to look at the 2010 World Cup bidding process. This was 2012. He delivered his report last September. A summary published subsequently was described by Garcia himself as substantially incomplete, and by others, more frankly, as a “whitewash”. The full report remains under wraps for what were described as legal reasons. Garcia resigned.

This tangled tale had augmented a growing sense that Fifa had been allowed to wriggle its way out of far too much. And if it took the combined might of the Swiss police, with its reputation for efficiency and integrity, and the US Justice Department, known for its tireless pursuit of felons everywhere, then so be it. Thank goodness someone was prepared to do the necessary.

Such an uncomplicated response, however, leaves several questions hanging. One concerns the Swiss authorities. The dawn raid was conducted by Swiss police at the request of the US, and this is normal practice if the evidence presented by the foreign jurisdiction passes muster. After the raid, however, the Swiss announced that they too had opened criminal proceedings “against persons unknown on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and money-laundering in connection with the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups”.

Why, it might be asked, did it take the generally straight-laced Swiss so long, and did it have anything to do with the secrecy of its banks? Was it Garcia’s report, perhaps, or did the US have evidence that forced the Swiss hand?

Another question concerns the US role and its implications. The background to the raid lends a whole new meaning to the term “global policeman” – not without some irony. Even as President Obama was being lambasted from all sides over his reluctance to deploy US military power to halt the advance of Islamic State in the Middle East, his law officers were extending the reach of US judicial power into a sovereign European state and the inner workings of a world sport governing body.

As the UK extradition cases of the “NatWest Three”, the hacker Gary McKinnon, and others have demonstrated, it is not unheard of for US prosecutors to track their quarry far beyond US shores and demand that the accused stand trial in the US. But what happened yesterday was something of quite a different order.

A rough summary would be that, with other jurisdictions unwilling or unable to force Fifa to put its house in order, the US decided to step in and do it for them. How far is this away from a US ambition to have its judicial writ run worldwide?

It is true that there are grounds for the US to claim jurisdiction. Some of the alleged corrupt practices took place on American soil and some of the money allegedly flowed through US banks – which, if true, suggests carelessness, ignorance or both. It also appears that the US indictments in Zurich are a result of evidence provided by other officials who have co-operated with the FBI. Again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong here; like it or not, plea-bargaining is the way so much justice in the US is done.

But the delight at Fifa finally (perhaps) getting its comeuppance needs to be tempered. What happened yesterday was a significant extension of the US judicial reach. And while Fifa might be seen as a deserving recipient of American-style justice, it is worth asking whether we would like to see Washington’s legal writ extended to other international sports bodies, to European organisations, perhaps even to branches of the UN – and where this new projection of US power might stop.

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