Top soccer officials nabbed in US, Swiss probes

Top soccer officials nabbed in US, Swiss probes
Raul Barriocanal, lawyer of former FIFA executive committee member and ex-president of the South American Football Confederation, Nicolas Leoz, talks to journalists at Migone Hospital

ZURICH - Swiss police arrested some of the most powerful figures in global football yesterday, announcing a criminal investigation into the awarding of the next two World Cups and plunging the world's most popular sport into turmoil.

In addition to the Swiss criminal probe, nine football officials and five sports media and promotions executives face extradition to the United States on corruption charges involving more than US$150 million (S$203 million) in bribes, the US authorities said.

Those arrested did not include Sepp Blatter, the Swiss head of Fifa, but included several just below him in the hierarchy of the wealthiest and most powerful sports body on earth.

Of the 14 indicted by the US Department of Justice, seven officials of football's governing body Fifa, including Fifa vice-president Jeffrey Webb, were arrested in Zurich. Four people and two corporate defendants had already pleaded guilty to various charges, the department said.

The Miami headquarters of Concacaf - the football federation that governs North America, Central America and the Caribbean - were being searched yesterday, the Department of Justice said.

"As charged in the indictment, the defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world," said Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey. "Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks and bribes became a way of doing business at Fifa."

The arrests by plainclothes Swiss police officers were made at dawn at a plush Zurich hotel where Fifa officials are staying, ahead of a vote this week in which they have been expected to easily anoint Blatter for a fifth term in office.

Fifa said the arrests were a "difficult moment", but Blatter would not step down and upcoming World Cups would go ahead as planned.

Separate from the US investigation, Swiss prosecutors said they had opened their own criminal proceedings against unidentified individuals on suspicion of mismanagement and money laundering related to the awarding of rights to host the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Data and documents were seized from computers at Fifa's Zurich headquarters, the Swiss prosecutors said.

Officials said that following the arrests, accounts at several banks in Switzerland had been blocked.

The US Department of Justice named those arrested in its case as Webb, a Briton; Costa Rican Eduardo Li, who was supposed to join the Fifa executive committee; Nicaraguan Julio Rocha; Briton Costas Takkas; Fifa vice-president Eugenio Figueredo from Uruguay; Rafael Esquivel, president of the Venezuelan Football Federation; and Brazilian football federation chief Jose Maria Marin.

The Department of Justice said the defendants included US and South American sports marketing executives alleged to have paid and agreed to pay "well over US$150 million in bribes and kickbacks to obtain lucrative media and marketing rights to international football tournaments".

"The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States," US Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement. "It spans at least two generations of football officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks," she said.

The international governing body of football collects billions of dollars in revenue, mostly from sponsorship and television rights for World Cups.

It has persistently been dogged by reports of corruption which it says it investigates itself. Until now, it has escaped major criminal cases in any country.

In particular, the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar, a tiny desert country with no domestic tradition of football, was heavily criticised by football officials in Western countries.

Fifa was forced to acknowledge that it is too hot to play football there in summer, when the cup is traditionally held, forcing schedules around the globe to be rewritten to move the cup.

Qatar's stock market fell sharply as news of the Swiss investigation emerged. A Russian official said his country would still host the 2018 World Cup.

Three years ago, Fifa hired a former US prosecutor to examine allegations of bribery over the awarding of the World Cups to Qatar and Russia. But last year it refused to publish his report, releasing only a summary in which it said there were no major irregularities. The investigator quit, saying his report had been mischaracterised.

Most of the arrested officials are in Switzerland for the Fifa Congress, where Blatter faces a challenge from Jordan's Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein in an election tomorrow to lead the organisation. Other potential challengers to Blatter have all dropped out of the race.

Prince Ali, who has promised to clean up Fifa if elected to the top job, called it "a sad day for football".

Damian Collins, a British Member of Parliament who founded the reform group New Fifa Now, said the arrests could have a massive impact on the governing body.

"It proves that Sepp Blatter's promises over the last few years to look into corruption at Fifa have not materialised and because he has totally failed to do this, it has been left to an outside law-enforcement agency to do the job and take action," he said.

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