The world governing body of football, Fifa, was plunged into an unprecedented crisis on the eve of its congress in Zurich after Swiss authorities arrested a string of officials in a dawn raid and opened criminal proceedings over the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
More than a dozen plainclothed officers descended on the five-star Baur au Lac hotel on Wednesday, where officials had gathered for Fifa’s annual meeting.
The arrests were made on behalf of US authorities, after an FBI investigation that has been ongoing for at least three years. The US Department of Justice said authorities had charged 14 officials, nine of whom are current or former Fifa executives. Those arrested in Zurich face extradition to the United States.
“They were expected to uphold the rules that keep soccer honest. Instead they corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and enrich themselves,” said the US Fifa general, Loretta Lynch, at a news conference in New York.
"They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament." Events tainted by corruption included the award of the 2010 World Cup to South Africa and the 2011 Fifa presidential election, she said.
Separately, Swiss federal prosecutors said they had opened criminal proceedings in connection with the award of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar. These decisions have been shrouded in claims of bribery and corruption ever since the vote in December 2010.
The Swiss authorities seized “electronic data and documents” in a raid on Fifa headquarters. Bank documents had earlier been collected from various Swiss financial institutions.
Police will question 10 members of the Fifa executive committee who took part in the World Cup votes
In a statement, the Swiss Fifa attorney general's office said the executives were being questioned on suspicion of "criminal mismanagement" and money laundering. It said the timing of the operation was deliberately co-ordinated with the arrests on behalf of the US authorities "to avoid any possible collusion" between suspects and because a large number of those involved in the voting for the two World Cups were present in Zurich, where Fifa president Sepp Blatter was expected to be re-elected for another four-year term on Friday.
At a later press conference at Fifa headquarters, spokesman Walter de Gregorio denied Blatter was in any way involved with either investigation and said that the Swiss proceedings were as a result of information provided by Fifa to the attorney general’s office in November 2014. He also confirmed that there was no suggestion that Russia or Qatar would lose the World Cup.
The arrests on behalf of the US authorities form part of an international investigation into bribes worth $100 million (€92 million) spanning three decades. The allegations date back to the 1990s and involve “the acceptance of bribes and kickbacks”, Swiss officials said.
Fifa vice-president Jeffrey Webb, of the Cayman Islands, was among those arrested. He is the head of Fifa’s North American regional body, known as Concacaf, which reported itself to US tax authorities in 2012.
The organisation had not paid taxes for several years when its president was Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer was secretary general.
As well as Webb, the Department of Justice statement confirmed the Fifa officials charged were Eugenio Figueredo, Jack Warner, Eduardo Li, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, Rafael Esquivel, José Maria Marin and Nicolás Leoz. A further four defendants were the sports marketing executives Alejandro Burzaco, Aaron Davidson, Hugo Jinkis and Mariano Jinkis. A further marketing executive, José Marguiles, was charged as an intermediary.
The US Department of Justice statement confirmed the charges were for racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies, “among other offences” and alleged a “24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer”. The charges were announced by the US attorney general Loretta Lynch.
The arrests came two days before Fifa president Blatter had expected to be re-elected for a fifth term. On Wednesday morning, Blatter, who was not among those arrested, was said to be actively lobbying to have Friday’s election postponed.
Blatter has been closely entwined with many of those charged in the United States during his 40 years at Fifa, including the Paraguayan Leoz and the Trinidadian Warner. Webb and Figuero are current Fifa vice-presidents.
Last year it emerged that Blazer, who was forced to resign after being accused of financial irregularities, had been helping the FBI with its long-running inquiry. The US Department of Justice statement said Blazer had already pleaded guilty to charges, as had José Hawilla, the owner and founder of the Traffic Group, a multinational sports marketing agency with its headquarters in Brazil.
Blazer wore a wiretap at the London 2012 Olympics and, although seriously ill, has been continuing to help the FBI with its investigation.
“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” said 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.”
Pressure is now bound to build on Blatter to postpone Friday’s election, where he is standing against Jordanian Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein.
“Today is a sad day for football,” said Prince Ali on Wednesday morning. “Clearly this is a developing story, the details of which are still emerging. It would not be appropriate to comment further at this time.”
Last November, Fifa’s ethics committee closed its investigation into the controversial bidding process that saw Qatar named as host of the 2022 World Cup, ruling that any breaches of the rules were only of “very limited scope”.
The decision to award Qatar the tournament was hugely controversial, prompting an avalanche of allegations about the way it won the bid and concerns about the searing heat in which matches would be held as well as the treatment of migrant workers building the infrastructure underpinning it.
But Fifa said an investigation did not find any direct link between the World Cup bid and illicit payments made by the disgraced former Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam, a Qatari who was banned for life for paying bribes during a campaign to unseat Blatter as president.