The spin started in earnest. If the events of the morning had caught FIFA by surprise, you would not know it by the reaction that came almost immediately.
“This, for FIFA, is good,” FIFA’s Director of Communications Walter De Gregorio told a hastily arranged press conference on Wednesday.
“It’s not good for our image, it’s not good for our reputation, but it’s good for cleaning up the game. We wouldn’t have initiated proceedings on the 18th November if we didn’t think it would be good for FIFA.”
It was certainly one way to look at it. At least six senior FIFA officials were detained by Swiss police in a dawn raid in the early hours of Wednesday morning in Zurich, according to the Mirror, with 14 arrests made worldwide as an expansive and well-coordinated investigation stepped up a gear.
The list of those arrested includes some of the biggest names in world football’s governing body, from current vice president Jeffrey Webb to former CONCACAF chief Jack Warner.
The arrests were made in conjunction with an ongoing FBI investigation into a history of bribery and corruption within the organisation, events going back nearly 30 years and involving nearly $100 million in funds (some of which took place on U.S. soil).
At the same time, the Swiss Office of the Attorney General announced a separate investigation, looking into allegations of corruption surrounding the bidding processes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. While Swiss officers were detaining those delegates wanted in the 5-star Baur au Lac hotel, others were at FIFA headquarters retrieving files and documents related to the two bidding processes.
The two investigations are not directly linked, but they will share information where relevant.
All in all, it appeared to be a dark day for FIFA but a glorious one for those who believe its practices have become a scourge on the game. It made the reaction from those within the organisation all the more surprising.
As De Gregorio stressed: “I wish to repeat that in this case, FIFA is the damaged party.”
A pragmatist would suggest that the arrests came on Wednesday because that is when officials knew many of the wanted parties would be in the same area at the same time, for the week's latest FIFA congress. A cynic (and, mainly because of FIFA, there are now a lot of them around) would suggest they came on Wednesday in a bid to inflict maximum embarrassment on FIFA president Sepp Blatter ahead of Friday’s scheduled presidential election.
The likelihood is, from the police perspective, it is the former rationale that was the overriding one. Nevertheless, the fact that members of the media (particularly the American media) seemed to have been tipped off about what was to happen ahead of time suggests someone, somewhere, wanted to ensure maximum exposure.
“None of us had any idea that at 6 a.m. this would start,” De Gregorio acknowledged. “I can assure you I would have gone to bed earlier. We were all surprised. We would have prepared this in another way if we had known that.”
What is true is that FIFA do seem to have been the ones who initiated, to one extent or another, the Swiss part of the investigation. What remains to be seen is why.
A statement from the office of the Swiss Attorney General, outlining the events of the morning, added at its conclusion:
On 18 November 2014, FIFA had filed criminal charges against persons unknown. Therefore, the Swiss proceeding is aimed at persons unknown, with FIFA as the injured party. With this procedure, the OAG is contributing to the struggle against corrupt behaviour and money laundering.
The news that the 2018 and 2022 bid processes were under investigation had led to immediate speculation that Qatar and Russia might be stripped of those respective tournaments. But the fact it is FIFA who initiated the proceedings—coupled with the fact De Gregorio subsequently explicitly stated the World Cup hosts would not be changed—would rather suggest that will not happen.
Nevertheless, it is impossible to look at FIFA’s decision to demand investigation of its own (“persons unknown”) as anything other than a tactical move. Blatter retains power by enriching and protecting other members, not by betraying them. He only does that when a scapegoat needs to be found to save the skin of himself and others—for that, see the rise and fall of Mohamed Bin Hammam—which makes one immediately suspect that he is creating an opportunity (if required) to do something similar here.
It should, of course, be noted that Blatter has yet to officially be charged with anything, but there are many who contend that the corruption of which FIFA has been accused during his reign can only truly be stopped once Blatter has been removed from office, be it by the authorities or another presidential candidate.
We should not underestimate Blatter’s Machiavellian ways. It should surprise no one if it turns out FIFA lodged the initial complaint with Swiss authorities because they knew what appears to be a very aggressive, well-resourced U.S.-led investigation was coming down the pipeline. For starters, it now allows De Gregorio to claim Wednesday’s events were all FIFA’s idea (when, in fact, only the milder parts probably were).
Secondly, as both investigations progress, perhaps FIFA feel they can dilute (or distract from) the impact of one investigation by working more closely with another they perhaps feel they have more influence over.
Having filed the complaint more than six months ago, that would suggest FIFA have been strategising for a long time. That would not be out of the question, and chime with recent reports from ESPN's E:60 (h/t Deadspin) suggesting Blatter is now scared to enter the United States and fearful about possible extradition.
Compared with the Swiss statement, the U.S. investigation seems more advanced, more complex and much more bullish. A statement released by the Department of Justice started:
A 47-count indictment was unsealed early this morning in federal court in Brooklyn, New York, charging 14 defendants with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies, among other offenses, in connection with the defendants’ participation in a 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer.
The guilty pleas of four individual defendants and two corporate defendants were also unsealed today.
One of the guilty pleas comes from Chuck Blazer, who is believed to be one of the major informants (it is a fair guess the others who have already pleaded guilty have also assisted investigations in exchange for more lenient judgement).
Blazer, who earned the nickname “Mr. 10 Percent” for his own dubious ways during his time in soccer administration, reportedly came to the attention of authorities after failing to make tax returns on many of the large payments he received for certain services rendered, as detailed in a report by the New York Daily News.
With leverage over Blazer, reports indicate he became an informant for the FBI—with claims that he even recorded other FIFA executives during meetings. It would seem Blazer’s information and testimony are already a key part of the FBI investigation and probably played a part in the arrest of Warner and Webb, the current and former presidents of CONCACAF and two of Blatter’s closest supporters.
With those two now being questioned, and Blazer likely to know plenty of incriminating details of how the system works, Blatter is sure to be worried about his own position on at least some level.
Not that the Swiss seems to be running scared, judging by De Gregorio’s repeated statements on Wednesday that Friday’s presidential election will go ahead as planned. Blatter was expected to win comfortably, and Wednesday’s events are unlikely to change that, even if a bit of last-minute glad-handing might now be required to assure his supporter base everything is at hand.
Nevertheless, once he is elected for another five-year term, Blatter becomes a moving target again—and perhaps that is why he wants the election to go ahead as scheduled.
Ensconced for another fixed term and with FIFA’s considerable resources at his fingertips, Blatter will feel as well-placed as he can be to fight this latest assault, one that at least looks to have more teeth than those that came previously.
Wednesday’s arrests are a great development for those convinced of FIFA’s rotten core, but it does not shed much light on how it might oust the man at the top of the tree. We have seen before Teflon Blatter’s remarkable ability to squirm out of potentially incriminating situations, either offering up another culprit in his stead or obfuscating the judicial process to the point no one knows what is going on (see: the Garcia report).
Perhaps pressure can be applied to those arrested, in much the same way it was applied to Blazer, getting them to turn on the man at the top in exchange for some sort of leniency.
Blatter is clever, however, and we can be sure he is already working hard to distance himself from those who might try to bring him down.
Attorney General Lynch added:
The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States. It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.
And it has profoundly harmed a multitude of victims, from the youth leagues and developing countries that should benefit from the revenue generated by the commercial rights these organizations hold, to the fans at home and throughout the world whose support for the game makes those rights valuable.
Today’s action makes clear that this Department of Justice intends to end any such corrupt practices, to root out misconduct, and to bring wrongdoers to justice—and we look forward to continuing to work with other countries in this effort.
It was a reminder of the stakes involved—the importance of getting some answers—and the determination of those involved.
Wednesday’s arrests are a promising development, but they are still only a start. Until authorities find a way to snare Blatter and cut the head off the snake, you sense he and his supporters may yet find a way to wriggle out of this one, too.