Six soccer officials were arrested in Zurich early Wednesday upon request from US authorities, suspected of receiving bribes worth millions of dollars, Swiss authorities said.
“The bribery suspects – representatives of sports media and sports promotion firms – are alleged to have been involved in schemes to make payments to the soccer functionaries – delegates of FIFA … and other functionaries of FIFA sub-organisations – totaling more than $100 million,” the Swiss justice ministry said in a statement.
“In return, it is believed that they received media, marketing, and sponsorship rights in connection with soccer tournaments in Latin America,” it added.
Swiss federal prosecutors say they have opened criminal proceedings related to the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
The justice ministry said the six officials were arrested upon request from US authorities “on suspicion of the acceptance of bribes and kick-backs between the early 1990s and the present day,” and that they were being held pending extradition.
“According to the US request, these crimes were agreed and prepared in the US, and payments were carried out via US banks,” the statement said.
Regional Zurich police carried out the arrests at a posh Zurich hotel and Swiss federal police say they would question 10 executive committee members who took part in the votes in December 2010.
A FIFA spokesman said Wednesday that international soccer’s top body was seeking to clarify the situation, and would not comment on the arrests.
The prosecutors’ office says the proceedings are against “persons unknown on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and of money laundering” in connection with the votes won by Russia and Qatar.
“In the Swiss criminal proceedings, opened by the Office of the Attorney General on 10 March 2015, it is suspected that irregularities occurred in the allocation of the FIFA World Cups of 2018 and 2022. The corresponding unjust enrichment is suspected to have taken place at least partly in Switzerland.”
They also say they have seized “electronic data and documents” at FIFA’s headquarters as part of the probe.
FIFA votes for president and on Israel
FIFA President Joseph Blatter, or Sepp, as he is known, is not a target of the US case. The charges come as Blatter looks to secure a fifth term in a vote Friday that will also have an impact on the upcoming 2018 World Cup tournament.
“Today is a sad day for football,” Prince Ali bin al Hussein of Jordan, a FIFA vice president and Blatter’s challenger for the presidency, said in a statement.
“Clearly this is a developing story, the details of which are emerging. It would not be appropriate to comment further at this time,” he added.
Blatter, whose grip on power since 1998 has been fortified by the success of soccer’s showpiece tournament, has pledged to stick with 32 teams. But Prince Ali is courting the 209 FIFA member federations by offering an immediate expansion of the World Cup to 36 teams if elected.
The organization will also face a controversial session this week deciding whether or not to suspend Israel from international competition following a Palestinian request.
On Tuesday, there were reports of intense negotiations going on between the Israeli and Palestinian Football Associations, moderated by FIFA officials.
“Negotiations are still going on but they are very complicated,” a top FIFA official told AFP.
“There may not be a solution until the final hours,” added the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.