High-ranking international soccer officials were arrested early Wednesday as part of a U.S. investigation into corruption at the sport’s governing body, called FIFA. Meanwhile, a separate Swiss investigation was also launched in relation to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids.
Nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives have been indicted for “racketeering, conspiracy and corruption,” by the U.S. Department of Justice. It said the probe was in connection with a 24-year scheme of corruption in international soccer.
Seven of these officials were arrested early Wednesday and were expected to be charged later in the day, U.S. law enforcement officials told NBC News.
Switzerland to investigate
Following the U.S. Department for Justice’s announcement on Wednesday, the Swiss Attorney General (OAG) said it was opening criminal proceedings against unspecified persons on suspicion of “criminal mismanagement and money laundering” in connection with the host allocation of the 2018 and 2022 Football World Cups.
“The OAG and the Swiss Federal Criminal Police will be questioning 10 persons who took part in voting on the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups as members of the Executive Committee in 2010,” it said.
The OAG added that it had seized electronic data and documents from FIFA’s head office in Zurich.
‘Not good for image’
In response to the two separate investigations, a FIFA spokesperson held an impromptu press conference and told reporters that it was a “difficult moment” for the organization.
“Timing is not obviously the best, but FIFA welcomes this process and will cooperate fully with (the investigation),” Walter de Gregorio, FIFA director of communications and public affairs, said.
He said that FIFA itself had asked Swiss authorities to investigate, but gave few details.
“It’s not good in terms of image, it’s not good in terms of reputation….in terms of cleaning up…this is good,” he said.
Arrests at luxury Zurich hotel
Earlier in the morning, seven suspects were arrested in Switzerland. They included representatives of sports media and sports promotion firms.
The suspects are alleged to have been involved in schemes to make payments to FIFA delegates and functionaries of FIFA sub-organizations totaling more than $100 million, Swiss authorities said.
“In return, it is believed that they received media, marketing, and sponsorship rights in connection with soccer tournaments in Latin America,” the Swiss Federal Office of Justice said in a statement.
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“According to the U.S. request [for extradition], these crimes were agreed and prepared in the U.S., and payments were carried out via U.S. banks.”
Some of the arrests were made at the lakeside Baur au Lac Hotel in downtown Zurich, long a favored place for senior FIFA officials to stay.
Swiss authorities were questioning the soccer officials Wednesday as to their willingness to be extradited to the U.S.
“Depending on whether the suspects will consent to the extradition immediately or whether they will challenge the arrest with legal measures, the extradition could happen fairly quickly or take several months,” Galli, the Swiss justice ministry spokesman, said.
Long-term FBI investigation
FIFA officials have been under investigation by the U.S.’s FBI for several years, with questions over whether top officials were paid large bribes to select the host country for World Cup final rounds dating back years.
A one-time FIFA executive from the U.S. had been cooperating with the FBI in helping to target leading FIFA officials.
Qatar a mistake?
Russia is set to host the 2018 World Cup tournament, while Qatar was chosen to host it in 2022. Brazil hosted the games in 2014 and South Africa in 2010.
The selection of Qatar was widely questioned because of the tiny emirate’s blistering heat, human-rights record and lack of history in the sport, along with the close ties of its ruling family to FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who is expected to win re-election for a fifth term this week.
Blatter has since called awarding the World Cup to Qatar a “mistake” but has said the decision won’t be revisited. “You know, one makes a lot of mistakes in life,” he said in a Swiss TV interview.
On Wednesday, Galli stressed that the corruption allegations were not related to the World Cups awarded to Russia or Qatar.
However, the Swiss Attorney General’s separate investigation confirmed that both of these events were being probed.
FIFA’s Walter de Gregorio said on Wednesday that both World Cups were still scheduled to go ahead and no re-vote was planned despite the investigations. Qatar’s blue-chip stock index slipped 2.6 percent on Wednesday after the news broke.
FIFA president ‘relaxed’
De Gregorio also added that FIFA President Blatter was not among the men arrested.
“He is not involved at all,” de Gregorio said at the press conference, adding that the president was “relaxed,” but not “dancing in his office.”
Presidential elections at FIFA are still due to go head this week, de Gregorio confirmed.
FIFA has grown from a small nonprofit organization that did little more than award the World Cup hosting rights to arguably the most powerful and richest sports organization in the world since Blatter was elected president in 1998.
In an interview published this Sunday, Blatter likened himself to a Swiss mountain goat, famed for its stubborn endurance.
Internal investigation closed
Last year, FIFA closed its own internal investigation, saying there was no corruption in the World Cup bidding, in a 42-page summary of a report by Michael Garcia, a former U.S. attorney for Manhattan.
Garcia resigned in protest over FIFA’s refusal to release his full 430-page report, which he filed in September, and has expressed frustration that a nondisclosure agreement bars him from publicizing his own findings.
However on Wednesday, FIFA’s Walter de Gregorio said the report would be published.
Earlier this month, ESPN quoted a former media consultant for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid as saying she was in the room when Qatari officials offered $1.5. million each to two members of the Executive Committee for their votes.
Last year, the Sunday Times newspaper reported on millions of secret FIFA documents that it alleged proved that Mohammed bin Hammam, a Qatari former member of the Executive Committee, bribed FIFA officials to the tune of $5 million in return for their support for Qatar’s bid. FIFA’s redacted version of Garcia’s report cleared Qatar of all wrongdoing.
In 2010, the Sunday Times newspaper published a video of an Executive Committee member accepting what he thought were bribes from a reporter acting undercover.