If FIFA President Sepp Blatter had watched more vintage U.S. war films, or The Two Towers, he’d have known what to expect: the cavalry always arrive eventually.
On Wednesday morning, the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice issued indictments and arrest warrants for nine current and former members of the FIFA Executive Committee, as well as five executives of the global soccer federation’s marketing partners, on charges of corruption, racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering. Simultaneously, in an operation with the precision of a mafia sting, plainclothes Swiss law enforcement officials walked through the door of the Bauer au Lac Hotel in Zurich. The Bauer has long been the favoured haunt of FIFA’s higher-ups, a place where they could retreat from the world into what a governance consultant called the “byzantine and impenetrable” world of FIFA politicking. Members of the ExComm and FIFA’s 209 national federations were staying there in preparation for the annual committee meeting and the (widely presumed) reelection of Sepp Blatter on Friday. The officers asked the concierge for the room numbers of those they sought, and then proceeded to calmly arrest seven of football’s most powerful kingmakers and walk them out the door, grabbing cases of evidence along the way. All now face extradition to the United States.
The move is unprecedented in the history of FIFA, long considered one of the most corrupt, nepotistic, and self-serving organizations to have ever been belched forth from the
depths of hell world of international sport. Two hours later, the Swiss government seized the numbered accounts of the indicted Executive members and raided FIFA headquarters to collect hard drives, files, and footage as they launched their own criminal investigation of the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, awarded to Russia and Qatar in a process wracked by bribery, vote-buying, and controversy. By the end of the day, UEFA – the European football confederation – had called for FIFA’s presidential elections to be postponed in the wake of the scandal, arrests had been completed in Trinidad & Tobago and Brazil, and the entire structure of FIFA was thrown into chaos.
Who is involved, and what are they charged with?
The FBI’s investigation named fourteen individuals – nine FIFA officials and five senior directors of marketing companies associated with FIFA. On the FIFA side, two current Vice Presidents – Eugenio Figueredo (Uruguay) and Jeffrey Webb (Cayman Islands), as well as Webb’s aide Costas Takkas – along with disgraced former VP Jack Warner (Trinidad & Tobago) have been indicted and arrested. Two former members of the FIFA Executive Committee – the U.S.’s Chuck Blazer and Costa Rica’s Eduardo Li – were also arrested, as was former Excomm member Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay. Jose Maria Marin (Brazil), Rafael Esquivel (Venezuela), and Julio Rocha (Nicaragua), all senior officials in CONCACAF and CONMEBOL (FIFA’s Americas affiliates) were also arrested in Zurich, while two of Jack Warner’s sons were arrested in 2013 and provided much of the evidence needed to indict yesterday’s arrests. Five sports marketing executives were also arrested, accused of paying bribes to FIFA officials in order to win commercial rights for high-profile competitions.
Collectively, the fourteen are charged with forty-seven counts of wire fraud, money laundering, and racketeering, each of which carries the possibility of twenty years in prison. The scathing Department of Justice indictment “alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, anddeep-rooted both abroad and in the United States,” according to newly-elected Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “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 accusations date back to 1991, with FBI Director Comey adding that “the defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed…illegal payments, kickbacks, and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA.” As Lynch further noted, “two generations of soccer officials abused their positions of trust for personal gain, frequently through an alliance with unscrupulous sports marketing executives who shut out competitors and kept highly lucrative contracts for themselves through the systematic payment of bribes. All told, the soccer officials are charged with conspiring to solicit and receive well over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for their official support of the sports marketing executives who agreed to make the unlawful payments.”
Why the United States?
A lot of observers – particularly Americans who know nothing about either soccer or their own legal system – were quick to wonder why the U.S. was getting involved in FIFA politics. The organization, after all, is based in Switzerland, and has done a remarkable job of evading five decades of corruption allegations in Europe and South America. Why America, and why now?
The process started when Chuck Blazer, an American former Vice President of CONCACAF, was indicted in 2011 on charges of corruption and tax evasion in U.S. court. In exchange for not spending the next seven centuries in prison, Blazer agreed to become an informant for the FBI in the upper echelons of FIFA, wearing a wire when the federation met at the 2012 London Olympics and turning over hundreds, if not thousands, of documents detailing FIFA’s history of kickbacks, corruption, and embezzlement. The FBI and IRS also bagged two of Jack Warner’s sons, both of whom pled guilty in exchange for assisting in the FBI investigation. The FBI’s suspicions built almost immediately following the December 2010 vote that gave the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, and they pursued investigations as much as they were able. Because public prosecution is often seen as a stepping-stone to elected office, there is also a particular incentive to go after big scalps in criminal investigations
As to the U.S.’s ability to request extradition, we can thank a number of quirks in the U.S. legal system that grant the country considerable extraterritorial jurisdiction when pursuing white collar crime. Part of this evolved out of American cultural attitudes – as The Telegraph noted yesterday, Americans have a particular hatred of financial fraud – and part from the U.S.’s perceived need to combat drug smuggling and terrorism. Basically, the FBI can claim jurisdiction on even the most tenuous links to American interests: if criminal organizations conduct transactions in U.S. dollars, the FBI has jurisdiction; if emails were sent from U.S.-based servers, the FBI has jurisdiction; if calls were made to or from American phones, the U.S. has jurisdiction; if illegal payments were made through American banks, as FIFA’s were, then the FBI has jurisdiction. In the past, this procedure has been used to go after leaders of drug cartels, terrorist organizations, the mob, and foreign despots. That it is now being used to breach the corrupt edifice of FIFA speaks volumes of how U.S. law enforcement views the nest of vipers that run international football.
The FBI’s capacity to get their man is extraordinary. This is the modern-day equivalent of busting Al Capone on tax evasion, but it sends the exact same message: if the FBI genuinely wants you, you have two options – go into hiding, or wait for the inevitable. It doesn’t matter whether you’re unwilling to set foot on U.S. soil, or whether you’re a U.S. national; they will find will, and they will bring the hammer of Odin/justice down on you.
What is likely to happen?
To begin with, the arrested ExComm members will face extradition charges to the United States from Switzerland. While the Swiss-American Extradition Treaty allows the former to refuse extradition for tax-related indictments, those guilty of general crimes can still be sent to the U.S. to face prosecution; racketeering and money laundering, coincidentally, just happen to be general crimes.
For those who face prosecution, the sentences have the potential to be particularly brutal. Another beautiful quirk of U.S. law allows every individual email sent as part of a financial crime to be considered a separate count of wire fraud, each conviction of which results in twenty years of prison. Given that sentences can stack in the U.S., someone like Jack Warner could potentially face a prison sentence that even Elrond would find lengthy.
Which is why it is likely that several of those arrested will crack in the face of FBI investigations.We are about to witness a dozen-person version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. The Racketeering Influenced and Criminal Organizations (RICO) Act, the primary tool of the FBI for going after organized crime syndicates, is specifically tooled to ensure that they don’t need to get the big guys on the first try; all they need is someone willing to talk. When faced with racketeering charges, Blazer and the younger Warners all offered to plea bargain; in exchange for lighter sentences, they would offer crucial evidence for the indictments that happened yesterday. Given that the Swiss and American authorities have now seized the emails, files, and numbered accounts of FIFA’s Executive Committee members, more is likely to follow.
As Kelly Curry, acting DA for East New York, noted in a Wednesday morning press conference, these indictments were “the beginning of our effort, not the end.” The ultimate prize is Sepp Blatter, the President of FIFA’s sprawling, seemingly galactic empire. Relying on the system of patronage and bribery that his predecessor, Brazil’s 2,000-year old Joao Havelange, created, Blatter is effectively able to run FIFA as his personal fiefdom. To the Swiss, he is “the dark prince of football.” To The Daily Mail, Blatter is “a smug, self-righteous Zurich gnome.” The Guardian is even more damning in its verdict, calling him “the most successful non-homicidal dictator of the past century.” Blatter has survived everything that the law has thrown at him, from the collapse of an embezzling FIFA spinoff marketing company in 2001 to the scandal of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup votes. For now, Blatter has insisted that he is innocent, that he was shocked – shocked! – to discover that corruption exists within his own inner circle. But as Swiss and American authorities comb through the mountains of evidence seized in Wednesday’s operation, it becomes increasingly likely that Blatter will be implicated in the rot of global soccer.
For now, though, FIFA has done its utmost to continue business as usual. In an Orwellian speech given earlier today, Sepp Blatter hailed the arrests as indicative of the efforts FIFA has taken to fight corruption, and that he was the best man for the job of continuing to purge FIFA of its corrupt elements. Such hubris is likely to get him re-elected tomorrow to a fifth term. Let us hope that, as the FBI continues to burrow through the labyrinth of FIFA’s internal sprawl, such hubris comes back to haunt him.