US prosecutors accused the leaders of soccer federations of tarnishing the sport for nearly a quarter century by taking $150 million in bribes and payoffs, laying out a sweeping corruption case that hinges on the testimony of insiders, including some who have agreed to cooperate in plea deals.
In announcing the racketeering conspiracy and other charges Wednesday against 14 defendants — nine current and former officials with global soccer governing body FIFA, four sports marketing executives and an accused intermediary — prosecutors also revealed four others had pleaded guilty in secret proceedings dating to July 2013. It’s believed some or all are cooperating in the investigation.
The arrests and allegations come on top of a separate Swiss investigation into alleged corruption in the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup championship games to Qatar and Russia. The two probes mark a massive blow to the soccer federation just two days before it was slated to meet Friday in Zurich for its annual congress, where it was to elect a president — and possibly expel Israel from participation in world soccer.
The Israel vote comes at the behest of the Palestinian Football Association, which alleges that Israel limits the movement of Palestinian players and fields teams from the West Bank in contravention of FIFA rules. FIFA officials, including its president Sepp Blatter, have opposed the Palestinian effort, but could not prevent the vote.
Israel has slammed the Palestinian effort as an attempt to bring politics into sports, and noted that Israeli soccer teams were not connected to Israeli policies in the West Bank or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generally.
The revelation of massive corruption probes, coupled with arrests of senior former and current FIFA officials makes it highly likely that FIFA will at least delay the Israel vote in order to focus on its more immediate crisis.
Israeli delegates to the FIFA congress in Switzerland are slated to meet Thursday with officials from UEFA, the powerful umbrella body for European soccer, to try to convince the group to push for a cancellation of the Israel vote. UEFA has already gone on record demanding that the entire congress be pushed off by six months in the wake of the corruption revelations, and threatening to boycott the congress if it was not rescheduled.
On the same day as the American announcement, Swiss officials also invaded FIFA headquarters, seizing records and computers to investigate whether the decisions to award World Cups to Russia and Qatar were rigged.
Scandals and rumors of corruption have dogged FIFA throughout the 17-year reign of its president, Sepp Blatter, but he was not named in either investigation. He is scheduled to stand Friday for re-election to a fifth, four-year term, and the organization said the vote would go ahead as planned, despite the latest turmoil.
FIFA also ruled out a revote of the World Cup bids won by Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.
“We welcome the actions and the investigations by the U.S. and Swiss authorities and believe that it will help to reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken to root out any wrongdoing in football,” Blatter said in a statement. The organization said it was cooperating fully with the investigation.
Some of the biggest names in soccer said they had complained for years about corruption in FIFA, which oversees the world’s most popular sport and generates billions in revenue each year.
“I was treated like a crazy person,” former soccer great Diego Maradona told radio station Radio La Red in Buenos Aires. “Now the FBI has told the truth.”
Former Brazilian star Romario, an outspoken FIFA critic, said “someone had to eventually arrest them one day.”
Authorities conducted early morning raids in Zurich at FIFA headquarters and the five-star Baur au Lac Hotel. In Miami, FBI and IRS agents carried computers and boxes out of the headquarters of CONCACAF, the governing body of North and Central America and the Caribbean, whose past and current presidents were among 14 defendants under indictment for corruption.
Swiss police arrested seven soccer official at the request of American prosecutors and threatened them with extradition to the US. Four other soccer and marketing officials agreed to plead guilty.
“Beginning in 1991, two generations of soccer officials … used their positions of trust within their respective organizations to solicit bribes from sports marketers in exchange for the commercial rights to their soccer tournaments,” US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a news conference in New York. “They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament.”
US prosecutors said they will seek forfeiture of more than $151 million the government alleges was illegally obtained. They said the indictments represented only the beginning of their efforts.
Richard Weber, head of the IRS Criminal Division, called the case “the World Cup of fraud.”
Two current FIFA vice presidents were among those arrested and indicted, Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands and Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay, the Justice Department said. The others are Eduardo Li of Costa Rica, Julio Rocha of Nicaragua, Costas Takkas of Britain, Rafael Esquivel of Venezuela and Jose Maria Marin of Brazil.
All seven are connected with the regional confederations of North and South America and face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
FIFA suspended 11 people, including Webb and Figueredo, from all soccer-related activities following the US announcement.
The corruption case against senior FIFA officials is likely to be a strong one, according to experts. The fact that some guilty pleas came almost two years ago speaks to how long authorities have been gathering evidence, likely some of it from those defendants, said Alfredo F. Mendez, a former federal prosecutor who now is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer.
A long time between a first round of pleas and their disclosure is “a signal that cooperation is going on,” Mendez said.
Prosecutors sealed the guilty pleas so they wouldn’t “flag that there was investigation going on,” said Timothy Heaphy, another former federal prosecutor and defense attorney. “That happens all the time in organized crime cases, whether white-collar or blue-collar.”
Also telling is the extent of the allegations prosecutors have unveiled — the indictment runs 161 pages — indicating they’re confident they have voluminous evidence, experts said.
Heaphy said such detail sends a message to defendants: “They know what we did. They have good information. That could be incentive to plead guilty and cooperate.”
Lynch announced the charges at a news conference packed with foreign journalists. The charges were filed by the US attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which she ran before becoming a cabinet member.
The indicted soccer officials “were expected to uphold the rules that keep soccer honest and to protect the integrity of the game,” Lynch said. “Instead, they corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and to enrich themselves.”
Former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner turned himself over to police in Trinidad, and he was later released on $2.5 million bail. Warner did not enter a plea, but he denied any wrongdoing.
The others had yet to be arrested.
Meanwhile, Warner’s two sons, Daryan and Daryll, entered secret guilty pleas in 2013. The indictment points to their possible cooperation by detailing how, in a scheme to fix a vote awarding the 2010 World Cup tournament to South Africa, Warner directed an unnamed co-conspirator — identified only as “a member of Warner’s family” — to fly to Paris to “accept a briefcase containing bundles of US currency in $10,000 stacks in a hotel room from a high-ranking South African bid committee official.”
“Given the allegations that we’ve seen just in the papers, there seems little doubt who the payments went to and for what reason,” said Andy Spalding, an international criminal law expert at the University of Richmond School of Law.
Prosecutors outlined 12 different schemes dating to 1991, most involving marketing and media rights to various events.
While the case has an international scope, prosecutors have noted that one entity at the heart of the case is headquartered in Miami, they’ve said some illegal transactions passed through US banks, and some defendants are US citizens.
“When you look at all of that, I think the government will argue that they have a reason for involvement in this,” Mendez said.
“The Department of Justice is trying to send a message to FIFA: ‘If you’re not going to police yourself, we’re going to police you, if you’re doing this kind of business in the United States.'”