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29 May 2015 00:00
Storm clouds loom: Fifa boss Sepp Blatter faces an uncertain future following the arrest of his key officials in Zurich this week. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)
The stylish lobby of the five-star Baur au Lac hotel on the shores of Lake Zurich is where Fifa’s secrets have traditionally gone to die.
If Fifa’s $255-million black and chrome headquarters high above Zurich is where the official business is done from Sepp Blatter’s presidential suite and the Dr Strangelove-style subterranean boardroom, then the foyer of the downtown hotel is where its most senior officials have met to discreetly plot and plunder down the decades.
It was where the deals were done before Blatter’s four election victories and during the scandal-hit, chaotic race that ended with Russia winning the right to host the 2018 World Cup and the 2022 tournament going to the tiny Gulf state of Qatar.
So it was symbolic that the dawn raids that resulted in seven Fifa officials being arrested and ushered into unmarked police cars, shielded by hotel staff holding up sheets, struck at the heart of Fifa’s secret society.
Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein, the Jordanian royal challenging Blatter for the Fifa presidency, said it was a sad day for football. Others were celebrating what may yet, for all his ability to withstand previous scandals, be the beginning of the end for the Fifa that Blatter built.
Seized from Swiss bank accounts
Simultaneously, Swiss authorities raided Fifa’s headquarters and collected documents and data in relation to a separate investigation into the way in which the 2018 and 2022 bidding race was conducted.
Crucially, bank documents were seized from Swiss bank accounts hitherto considered among the world’s most secretive.
The names of the seven arrested in Zurich, and the 14 charged in an explosive United States department of justice indictment, over racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering, linked Fifa’s inglorious past with its latest meltdown.
Jack Warner, the Trinidadian rogue who was linked with numerous corruption claims during his 21 years at Fifa involving ticketing and TV rights, and Nicolás Leoz, the Paraguayan who once allegedly asked for a knighthood in exchange for his vote during England’s 2018 bid and was implicated in the $100-million ISL (International Sport and Leisure, a Swiss company, closely associated with Fifa) bribery scandal, were not in Zurich.
But Fifa vice-president Jeffrey Webb, the Concacaf president who was painted as a reformer and who replaced Warner in 2011, and who Blatter cited as a possible successor, and the Uruguayan Eugenio Figueredo were in the Swiss capital.
As was Eduardo Li, the president of the Costa Rican federation who was due to be elevated to the Fifa executive committee on Friday in a conference centre on the outskirts of Zurich.
But it is the presence of Webb on the list that is potentially most troubling for Blatter, who has been at Fifa for 40 years since moving from watchmaker Longines to become the protégé of his now disgraced predecessor João Havelange.
Webb is a charismatic ex-banker from the Cayman Islands who pledged to clean up the mess left behind by Warner and his Concacaf general secretary Chuck Blazer, who turned supergrass and wore a wire to the London 2012 Olympics at the behest of the FBI after being threatened over a huge tax bill.
Preaching transparency and openness
On Tuesday afternoon, Webb, head of Fifa’s internal audit committee, was relaxed as he preached transparency and openness to reporters. Hours later, he was woken by Swiss plainclothes police officers. Now he has been accused by Kelly Currie, acting US attorney, of abusing his position to solicit and collect bribes from sports-marketing executives.
And the jaw-dropping indictments published in the US laid bare the extent of Fifa’s corruption that has flourished under Blatter’s watch.
From bribes paid during the race for the 2010 South Africa World Cup to the 2011 presidential election and the model of kickbacks on TV and sponsorship deals that has been adopted by generation upon generation of Fifa executives, the modus operandi of world football’s governing body is laid bare.
The indictments list from the US department of justice named three current or former Fifa vice-presidents and three current or former executive committee members, the organisation’s most exalted club.
Under the parallel investigation instigated by the Swiss attorney general into the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, 10 members of the Fifa executive committee were set to be questioned by Friday.
Many of the officials from 209 member countries, who had flooded into Zurich’s luxury hotels over the previous 48 hours expecting an enjoyable week at Fifa’s expense, were visibly shaken as they attempted to carry on the various meetings that dominate the build-up to Friday’s congress.
Most seasoned Fifa watchers agreed that Wednesday’s early morning action was unprecedented and presented Blatter with the greatest threat to his authority yet.
It is understood that US investigators and the Swiss prosecutor’s office have been co-operating for some time; it is the shift in mood in his homeland that will most trouble Blatter, for all that his spokesperson was keen to underline he was not involved. He somehow managed to keep a straight face while insisting that the chaos and drama was good for Fifa and that Blatter could not be held responsible for the fallout at an organisation from which he has become indivisible over his 40 years.
In typical Fifa fashion, spokesperson Walter De Gregorio also reiterated that there would be no revote on the 2018 and 2022 World Cups before being forced to admit that he could not predict what would happen in the future.
As well as the immediate future of Blatter, his estimated $10-million salary and some of his key lieutenants, it is the award of those two tournaments that will once again come under scrutiny and will perhaps be of most interest to football fans around the world.
That vote on December 2 2010 has had long-standing ramifications, but Fifa mistakenly believed it had drawn a line under the increasing weight of allegations with a report by investigator Michael Garcia that he later disowned.
Blatter said in December that there was not enough evidence of wrongdoing to justify stripping either country of the tournament, despite Russia’s refusal to co-operate with the investigation and outstanding questions over Qatar’s bid.
Throughout all the scandals that have echoed down his reign since he became president in 1998 and amid allegations that some votes had been secured improperly, Blatter returned to the same tried and tested techniques to try to deflect criticism and engender loyalty among the 209 associations that benefited from ever-increasing development money. In Blatter’s court, they are used to shrugging off scandals that would have sunk other organisations.
But just as it took the involvement of US law enforcement to get to the truth in another long-running sporting scandal – institutionalised doping in professional cycling – so it appears that the culture cultivated and overseen by Blatter could finally be brought crashing down.
For many in Switzerland, Fifa has gone from a source of pride to one of shame. The mood has changed and for Blatter, whatever the outcome of the vote on Friday, this is unlikely to be the end of the story. Following his grandstanding speeches at Fifa gatherings, Blatter likes to end with a flourish and the catchphrase: “For the game, for the world.”
Over 24 dramatic hours, for Fifa and Blatter the game has definitively changed. Or as James Comey, director of the FBI, said on Wednesday: “The field was hijacked. This investigation has been long and painstaking and it is not over.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015
Visa, one of Fifa’s key sponsors, has threatened to reassess its relationship with football’s world governing body as Sepp Blatter faced increasing pressure not to seek re-election as its president.
The accusations of “rampant, systemic and deep-rooted” corruption following Wednesday’s arrest of 14 people in connection with bribes totalling more than $150-million have sent shock waves through the football world.
Fifa sponsors, including Adidas, Visa and Coca-Cola, are calling for the body to reform its practices. Visa issued a statement on Wednesday expressing its “disappointment and concern with Fifa”.
The crisis has also cast doubt on Blatter’s leadership. He is seeking a fifth four-year term as president this week, but leading figures in world football have called for him to reconsider his position.
Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona told Radio La Red in Buenos Aires that his complaints about Fifa corruption had been ignored for years. “I was treated like a crazy person,” he said. “Now the FBI has told the truth. There is no soccer. There is no transparency. Enough lying to people and dinner parties to re-elect Blatter.”
Human Rights Watch has made a pointed call for the next president of Fifa to ensure any future World Cup hosts comply with fundamental human rights norms. Russia, which is hosting the 2018 competition, and 2022 host Qatar have both come under fire for abuses. – © Claire Phipps & Damien Gayle, Guardian News & Media 2015
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