Late last night, the New York Times dropped a bombshell:
Swiss authorities conducted an extraordinary early-morning operation here Wednesday to arrest several top soccer officials and extradite them to the United States on federal corruption charges.
Specifics are hard to come by at the moment, but here are the facts so much as we are able to confirm:
- The indictment names 14 people on a variety of charges, from racketeering, to wire fraud and money laundering.
- Most of the investigation is focused on CONCACAF, one of FIFA’s six confederations that covers North and Central America – including the United States and Mexico.
- Swiss plainclothes officers raided a hotel in Zurich and performed the arrests there. Not all of those named were present at the hotel and six officials were arrested in total.
- The names of the soccer officials in the indictment have been released. They are Jeffrey Webb, Eugenio Figueredo, Jack Warner, Eduardo Li, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, Rafael Esquivel, José Maria Marin and Nicolás Leoz. Also being charged are several sports marketing executives and businessmen.
- The charges are said to focus on the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, but will cover alleged kick-backs and bribes stretching back to 1991.
- FIFA President Sepp Blatter is not among those being charged.
Most intriguing to me was the choice of vehicle by the plainclothes Swiss officers:
Not intimidating on the street corner, but real good for sneaking up on people I suppose. Eduardo Li, the Chinese president of the Costa Rican football federation, was among those swept up at the hotel. And you thought those last few USA-Costa Rica matches were chippy. Several of the arrestees are also members of FIFA’s 24 member Executive Committee, or ExCo, which votes on the awarding of World Cup locations.
Last year, FIFA commissioned an independent investigation of the process for awarding the World Cup to Russia and Qatar headed by Michael Garcia, a former U.S. Attorney. However the results of his investigation have never been released – his report was condensed down into a 42 page summary that Garcia labeled as “numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts.”
The summary cleared both Russia and Qatar of wrongdoing and affirmed the status of their bids. Garcia would resign from FIFA’s Ethics Committee (feel free to chuckle) after an appeal to have the full report made public was denied. On his way out the door, Garcia wrote: “No independent governance committee, investigator, or arbitration panel can change the culture of an organization.”
But perhaps a government can.
Recently appointed US Attorney General Loretta Lynch will speak this morning along with James Comey, the director of the FBI, in New York to detail the charges. The FBI investigation has been ongoing for three years, with some added help, including:
That American is Chuck Blazer, who was a member of FIFA’s executive committee until 2013 and the General Secretary of CONCACAF from 1990-2011. According to the Wall Street Journal, he flipped after authorities threatened him with tax evasion charges of his own in 2011 and has assisted with the investigation since then.
For fans of the sport, like myself, this is welcome news. The presence of the investigation has been known for some time but it was hard to see a result coming out of it. If FIFA had an analogue it’d be Floyd Mayweather – makes a ton of money, amoral, impossible to stick, and everyone can’t help but tune in.
FIFA has long operated under a shroud of secrecy but the curtain is slowly being rolled back on both the organization and its President. ESPN earlier this month ran an E:60 special examining Blatter and his rise to power within FIFA. Sources told them that Blatter has avoided travel to the United States since 2011, due to fear stemming from the investigation. (Blatter denies this of course.)
The timing of the arrests is also noteworthy. Officials from all 209 of FIFAs member states are gathering in Zurich this week to conduct official business, including a vote this Friday to elect (or re-elect) a President. In this election, unlike the previous three, Blatter will not be running unopposed. Up until last night however, he was expected to win resoundingly and he still may do so, but last night’s events should rightfully shake things up a bit.
I don’t think it is likely that Sepp Blatter will ever answer for the rampant corruption and obstinacy of his reign. He seems too smart to be caught with a bribe; that’s what a bag man is for.
However this seems to be part of a larger strategy, if you can’t come at the man head on then go at him sideways. John Gotti beat three trials, but finally fell when one of his top lieutenants turned state’s evidence and Cosa Nostra largely went down with him. Flip one of these guys and as Bomani Jones said:
The first cracks in FIFA’s facade are being formed, the dark machinations of the world’s most powerful sports organization are being dragged out of hiding. There is a long way to go for needed and substantial reform in soccer’s worldwide governing body, but it is admittedly nice to wake up to a sliver of sunlight than a grim, foreboding sky.
BRIAN WONG | @bigbwong
Brian Wong is a third-generation Chinese American and Bay Area native. NBA fan, Golden State Warriors fanatic. Brian is a 2015 Dat Winning fellow.