FBI finally gets FIFA, but where does the investigation go from here?
The Baur au Lac hotel, a five-star palace on the banks of Lake Zurich, has always been Ground Zero for the stench that pervades FIFA, soccer’s world governing body. With its $4,000-a-night suites, the Baur au Lac hosts the biggest of soccer bigwigs when they come to Zurich, the home of FIFA, for major events like this Friday’s FIFA presidential election.
The Baur au Lac was the epicenter of the backroom deals that led to Russia and Qatar being awarded the hosting rights for World Cups 2018 and ’22 on December 2, 2010. And, fittingly enough, the Baur au Lac was the site for Wednesday’s breathtaking arrests of several top FIFA executives as part of a U.S. Department of Justice indictment that names nine current and former FIFA officials and five corporate executives on charges including racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy.
The 47-count indictment “alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” said U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch in a statement. “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.”
FIFA president Sepp Blatter was not among those detained on Wednesday, but who knows where these arrests may lead?
FIFA claimed that its presidential election would go ahead as planned on Friday, but that too may change. Blatter was expected to have a landslide victory on Friday over Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein. Now, though, nothing is guaranteed.
We knew the FBI had been investigating FIFA officials when reports began emerging about the probe as far back as 2011. And we knew that former FIFA Executive Committee member Chuck Blazer, an American, had been turned by the feds as part of their investigation. But the question still lingered until Wednesday: Four years into the probe, was the FBI actually going to produce the goods?
Someone needed to. FIFA’s own investigations into the bids for World Cups ’18 and ’22 had lacked credibility—and, most importantly, subpoena power. Not surprisingly, they produced no smoking guns of any sort. Nor have FIFA’s sponsors, including U.S. companies like Coca-Cola, Visa and McDonald’s, exerted any real pressure on FIFA to reform itself in a meaningful way.
As a result, the only groups that FIFA officials truly feared were the Swiss government and, once word came out of its investigation, the FBI. But would the FBI come through? Or would it shut down its investigation the way it once did with Lance Armstrong?
Now we have an answer.
A few other thoughts on the massive news:
• The timing of the arrests makes perfect sense. With the FIFA election taking place this week, all the top soccer officials from around the world were gathering in the same place, most of them staying in the same hotel. The key for the FBI was getting cooperation from the Swiss government in making the arrests and setting up those indicted for extradition to the United States.
As Lynch said in her statement, “Today’s action makes clear that this Department of Justice intends to end any such corrupt practices, to root out misconduct, and to bring wrongdoers to justice—and we look forward to continuing to work with other countries in this effort.”
• To me, the most interesting name of those arrested for now is current CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands. Webb was supposed to be a symbol of a new, cleaned-up CONCACAF in the wake of the corruption that took place under two decades of rule by Jack Warner and Blazer. Webb has been a big ally of Blatter, who named Webb as the head of FIFA’s anti-racism committee. Clearly, if the charges are proven, CONCACAF hasn’t cleaned itself up.
• All of those arrested are from the Americas. Does that mean other parts of the world are clean? Heck no. But it’s not that surprising considering 1) North and South America are home to some of the sleaziest soccer politicians, and 2) the unsealed indictment notes that guilty pleas have already come in from Blazer, Warner’s two sons and Brazilian-owned Traffic Sports. Those are the people the FBI has turned or will turn.
The question now is how high up this investigation will go. Will the 14 people arrested on Wednesday have the goods on Blatter himself? And will the stunning events really change FIFA? Plenty of open questions remain, but May 27, 2015, will be remembered as the day the federales finally came for FIFA.