The world of soccer was in turmoil on Wednesday as Swiss police arrested six senior officials in a dawn raid at a Zurich hotel.
The U.S. Department of Justice said on Wednesday morning that it had also indicted several officials over conspiracy and corruption.
Switzerland’s Federal Office of Justice confirmed that the six officials from the game’s governing body, FIFA, had been arrested under suspicion of accepting bribes and kickbacks between the early 1990s and the present day.
In a seperate move, Swiss authorities also raided FIFA's headquarters in Zurich where they seized files and launched an investigation “on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and of money laundering in connection with the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 football World Cups.”
The 2018 and 2022 World Cups are due to be held in Russia and Qatar respectively.
The office of the Attorney General in Switzerland said the files seized today "will serve criminal proceedings both in Switzerland and abroad."
The U.S. Department of Justice also said that nine FIFA officials and five executives have been indicted in the United States for racketeering, conspiracy and corruption. In a statement, it said Jeffrey Webb and Jack Warner – the current and former presidents of CONCACAF, the Americas' continental confederation headquartered in the United States – are among the soccer officials charged with racketeering and bribery offenses.
Mr. Webb was one of the men also arrested in the Zurich raids.
FIFA spokesman Walter De Gregorio said that the current president, Sepp Blatter, who is seeking re-election for a fifth term, was not one of these arrested.
In a Wednesday morning press conference, Mr. De Gregorio said he had no further information on the investigations but said "it is certainly a difficult moment for us."
The Swiss Federal Justice authorities said the arrests are connected to an investigation into bribes worth more that $100 million, or €91.6 million, for “media, marketing and sponsorship rights in connection with soccer tournaments in Latin America.”
“According to the U.S. request, these crimes were agreed and prepared in the U.S. and payments were carried out via U.S. banks,” the officials said in a statement.
The arrested men will be questioned by Swiss authorities on Wednesday and can then be extradited to the United States. If they consent, they can be extradited straight away. If they object, the United States will have to submit a formal extradition request within 40 days.
FIFA officials were all in Zurich this week for their annual meeting and to vote on their president. Mr. Blatter is running for an unprecedented fifth term in office, with the support of several African and Asian countries, even though most European football associations want him to step down.
Mr. De Gregorio said the FIFA congress and election will carry on despite the raids and arrests. The one thing, he said, has "nothing to do with another."
Wolfgang Niersbach, head of the German Football Association, is one of the several European football chiefs who have expressed disquiet at Mr. Blatter’s decision to cling to office in the wake of several corrorruption scandals. “There needs to be a change at the top of FIFA,” he said in an interview with Bild last Thursday.
Mr. Niersbach has also said in the past that he is concerned about the lack of worker protection in Qatar and the conditions under which football stadiums are being built.
FIFA has been hit by several corruption scandals in recent months, most notably over its decision to award Qatar the right to host the 2022 World Cup. FIFA commissioned an investigation into its bidding process after a whistleblower claimed that several African officials in FIFA were paid $1.5 million to support Qatar.
Michael J. Garcia, a former U.S. Attorney, wrote the report, but FIFA decided in November 2014 not to publish it.
Instead, German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert, who heads up FIFA’s ethics committee, released a summary of the report. The summary accepted there had been some problems, but the voting process that gave Qatar the World Cup was fundamentally sound.
FIFA took Mr. Eckert’s summary as vindication of its actions. But within hours of the summary being released in November 2014, Mr. Garcia, the report’s author, said the summary was misleading, incorrect and incomplete. Mr. Eckert said at the time he was surprised by Mr. Garcia’s criticism but declined to publish the full report.
Mr. Webb, who was one of the men arrested on Wednesday, said last year that the issue of whether to publish the report had divided the FIFA committee. He and fellow FIFA official Sunil Gulati, who led the U.S. bid for the 2022 World Cup, released a statement saying “we believe the full report conducted by the FIFA ethics committee into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups should be made public as soon as possible.”
But FIFA insisted the full report should not have been published and in recent months has come out fighting against investigators and reporters who have hinted that the organization is still beset with corruption.
Earlier this month, the organization released a statement criticizing German broadcasting partner, ARD, for a report titled “Der verkaufte Fussball,” or football for sale. One of the reporters working on the program revealed that his crew had been arrested in Doha while making a report on living conditions on workers building football stadiums, for not obtaining the correct permits.
FIFA’s spokesman Mr. De Gregorio released an extraordinary statement that did not comment on the arrests, but said that in the program “facts were distorted or presented out of context.”
Mr. De Gregorio continued sarcastically that while ARD’s broadcasting agreement with FIFA “does not preclude them from broadcasting critical reports…the fact that a public service broadcaster allows such a bashing is nothing new; it is astonishing nonetheless - new standards in quality journalism funded by the tax payer.”
Meera Selva is an editor at Handelsblatt Global edition. To contact the author: [email protected]