The Swiss have done what the Germans couldn’t bring themselves to do. They’ve opened a criminal investigation into soccer legend Franz Beckenbauer over suspicions that he committed fraud and laundered money in helping Germany win the rights to host FIFA’s 2006 World Cup.
The German website Der Spiegel said federal attorneys in Switzerland are looking into a chain of suspect payments of around 10 million Swiss francs between 2002 and 2005 to a Swiss law firm from an account run jointly by Beckenbauer and his then business partner Robert Schwan.
The payments were allegedly part of a chain that allowed the German Soccer Federation, or DFB, to run a slush fund to buy the votes of key FIFA committee members. As it didn’t have the necessary money itself, it borrowed it from former Adidas CEO Robert Louis-Dreyfus (since deceased). According to German media disclosures in November last year, Beckenbauer—a member of the DFB’s bid committee—had personally guaranteed Louis-Dreyfus would be repaid.
Once the DFB had won the hosting rights—and guaranteed itself a multi-million dollar windfall from FIFA and its sponsors—it reimbursed Louis-Dreyfus through accounts linked to FIFA, adding another thread to the rich tapestry of corruption exposed 15 months ago by U.S. authorities.
As state prosecutors in Germany opened a probe into money-laundering by the DFB in November 2015, its President Wolfgang Niersbach resigned, although he denies any wrongdoing. Of the four-man bid committee, Beckenbauer alone escaped the odium of a criminal investigation into him personally.
As such, the Swiss investigation—based on the premise that the payments ran through Swiss accounts—gives the affair a whole new dimension, untrammelled by the emotional baggage of calling the nation’s best-loved sports figure a crook (Beckenbauer never won two World Cups for Switzerland, after all).
Beckenbauer and Schwan were both unreachable for comment Thursday. The man they called Der Kaiser has however denied ever buying votes and denied any wrongdoing. He told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung last year that he “always signed blindly when they needed my signature”—the same defense that today’s soccer legend Lionel Messi used unsuccessfully in his trial for tax evasion in Spain earlier this year. Messi was found guilty but avoided jail time.