It’s the day that millions of soccer fans across the world thought they’d never see: after years of reports of corruption and years of increasingly brazen denials, law enforcement officials have moved against the leadership of Fifa, the governing body of the world’s most popular sport.
Acting on a request from U.S. attorneys in New York, Swiss police arrested six Fifa officials in a dawn raid on a luxury hotel in Zurich Wednesday morning, on suspicion of accepting bribes and kickbacks in return for lucrative marketing rights to tournaments in Latin America since the early 1990s.
The Justice Department unsealed a 47-count indictment later Wednesday, charging nine Fifa officials and five sports marketing executives with racketing, wire fraud and money-laundering. They include two serving vice-presidents of Fifa but not the organization’s controversial and embattled president, Sepp Blatter.
Attorney-General Loretta Lynch said in a statement that the DoJ’s indictment “alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States. 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.”
She put the amounts involved at over $150 million.
The crimes fell under U.S. jurisdiction because they were prepared in the U.S. and executed through U.S. banks, the indictment said.
Separately, Swiss prosecutors said they had opened criminal proceedings related to the most notorious Fifa episode of recent years. The authorities raided Fifa’s Zurich headquarters Wedndesday, seizing data and documents on suspicion of “criminal mismanagement and money-laundering in connection with the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.”
The right to host those tournaments was given to Russia and Qatar, respectively.
In a press conference later, a visibly unhappy Fifa spokesman Walter de Gregorio said the organization welcomed the probe and claimed that Fifa had initiated it by passing documents on to the U.S. attorneys in November.
“It’s not good in terms of image or reputation, but in terms of cleaning up, it’s good,” de Gregorio said.
He added that there would be no revote on the 2018 and 2022 tournaments, but then hedged saying: “That is what is fact today. I won’t go into speculation on what may happen tomorrow.”
The arrests follow guilty pleas and convictions from a number of former Fifa officials and their relatives, including Chuck Blazer, the former U.S. representative on Fifa’s executive committee, and two sons of Jack Warner, a former vice-president of Fifa from Trinidad & Tobago. Warner senior is one of the defendants. Warner resigned his post after 21 years in 2011 under strong, but unproven, suspicions of corruption.
Also arrested were Fifa vice-president Jeffrey Webb, the head of the CONCACAF regional soccer federation that includes the U.S., along with the national association heads of Brazil, Venezuela and Costa Rica.
The key name missing from the list is Fifa’s embattled and controversial president, Sepp Blatter. However, the arrests are a clear threat to the position of the 79 year-old Swiss national, who has dominated the organization and its multi-billion dollar income stream for the last 20 years, and who has drawn widespread criticism for the lack of transparency and accountability at the organization.
De Gregorio stressed that Blatter “isn’t involved” in the probe, but admitted that he “isn’t dancing in his office.”
Blatter’s power has secured him the personal loyalty of many of the sport’s top officials. Osiris Guzman, head of the Dominican Republic’s soccer association, compared Blatter to Moses, Jesus and Nelson Mandela in a speech last month as the latter took the stump in his latest re-election campaign.
Blatter was widely expected to be confirmed this week as Fifa president for a record fifth term, after most of his opponents, including the former Real Madrid and Portugal star Luis Figo, withdrew claiming that the process had been rigged in his favor.
The only candidate left standing against Blatter is the Jordanian Prine Ali bin Al-Hussein, who said at the weekend he had contacted police after being approached by an individual who claimed he could deliver 47 votes at Friday’s election, according to The Guardian. Each of Fifa’s 209 member associations has one vote.
Under a bilateral treaty with Switzerland, the suspects can be extradited to the U.S. immediately under a simplified procedure. However, if they resist extradition, the FOJ will invite the U.S. to submit a formal extradition request within 40 days.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include comment from Fifa and the details of the DoJ’s indictment.