In the first of a 3 part special Andre Gabriel unravels the mess that is the world’s largest sporting organisation
For many years, countless journalists, politicians, football officials and fans have called for the obvious corruption at football’s top governing body to be addressed. Yet no amount of exposé Panorama specials, scathing column inches or special reports could bring about any reform to the hundred and eleven year old organisation. That was until the early hours of the 27th of May when Swiss authorities did something virtually unheard of in the capital of this quiet, neutral, tax haven; a dawn raid on the offices of a multinational based in Zürich, an organisation called FIFA.
Along with a number of other sporting governing bodies including the European Football Governing body (UEFA) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), FIFA is based in Switzerland mainly because of its favourable tax laws though the Organisation will be happy to tell you it’s because of perceived neutrality. These governing bodies have been subject to the vaguest legislation and governmental oversight under Swiss law; in fact only recently did the nation’s parliament pass new laws making the heads of sporting associations open to financial scrutiny and criticism.
There has long been growing concern from both the Swiss population and media that authorities had become too soft in their approach to financial crimes. Recent embarrassing scandals like that of Zurich based HSBC Investment Bank’s rampant money laundering and a number of crises at the national banks have soured the nation’s reputation for financial integrity.
So what prompted this uncharacteristic raid on the offices of FIFA officials? Not one but two separate investigations from either side of the Atlantic into the dealings of the world’s richest sporting organisation. The first investigation led by the US Justice Department in conjunction with the FBI and IRS started in 2010 has led to fourteen indictments (including nine current and former FIFA staff). It concerns bribes and kickbacks totalling $150 million over a period of 24 years, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch described it as “rampant, systematic and deep rooted”.
The scale of the US probe is truly breathtaking; warrants have been issued for FIFA vice president Jeffery Webb, FIFA development officer Julio Rocha, President of the Venezuelan Football Association Rafael Esquivel, Costa Rican football Chief Eduardo Li and the former president of the Brazilian football association Jose Maria Marin. The most striking indictment may be that of former CONCACAF (North America, Central America and the Caribbean football federation) chief Jack Warner whose reputation has been under question for many years, Interpol has even issued a red notice for the 72 year old Trinidadian a place normally the reserve of war criminals and international drug kingpins not football officials.
Some of those indicted have already pleaded guilty like Charles ‘Chuck’ Blazer the former FIFA executive turned supergrass who has been helping the US authorities with their investigation. Richard Weber the chief tax official presiding over the investigation is confident of more indictments as work continues with the case. Despite the frequent calls for action on FIFA the timing of the investigation and the announcement of the indictments is both very telling.
It appears the go ahead for the investigation was given shortly after the United States lost out to South Africa to host the 2010 world cup; it is no secret the US team felt the decision was flawed. Could the ensuing investigation be seen as retaliation for the award of the 2010 world cup? This is FIFA; anything is possible. The fact that one of the key branches of the US probe revolves around a supposed $10 million bribe from the South African committee to Jack Warner and two other officials, all of whom are believed to have voted for the African nation in the 2010 could expose the real motivation for the US prosecution. Maybe the Americans were right to be aggrieved; it appears this sort of corruption may have become commonplace in FIFA.
This leads us to the separate criminal investigation launched by Swiss authorities on the same day as the US into the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 world cups to Russia and Qatar respectively. Both awards were seen as highly controversial when first announced, now with a criminal investigation into a ‘cash for votes’ scandal some involved question whether either will go ahead especially if the Swiss operation leads to arrests of FIFA officials who voted.
Reservations have been present from the beginning, the Russian bid beat out a very popular bid from the English FA with questions being asked to whether Russia is capable of hosting such an event safely. There has also been concern with Russia’s record on gay rights and well documented issues with racial abuse of African players in the domestic league. These coupled with the growing tensions between Russia and the west over the annexation of the Crimean peninsula have not helped the matter with Russian premier Vladamir Putin claiming his western opponents using the 2018 world cup for political posturing.
The Qatari world cup plans are in no better shape. The tiny emirati which has an indigenous population of just 800,000 people has drawn considerable flak from the international community regarding the working conditions of the 1.4 million migrant workers in the country. There has been some 1200 deaths in the last 5 years amongst the international workforce who partake in the labour system called ‘Kafala’, this figure is from a report by law firm DLA Piper and was commissioned by the Qatar government themselves. Admittedly not all these deaths are directly connected to construction projects associated with the World Cup, however very serious questions need to be asked not only about site safety but also about reports of squalid living conditions, confiscated passports and 7 day working weeks. Some human rights groups have even likened it to modern day slavery.
It doesn’t stop there. During the summer the Qatari climate can reach temperatures as high as 50° Celsius, which makes playing football at that time of year nigh on impossible. A solution came with the announcement of air conditioned stadia, an idea that was met with scepticism from the international football community due to the technical difficulties involved with executing the proposal. Eventually FIFA decided to move the World Cup to the winter much to the consternation of the European federations who will have to drastically change their football schedules. The tiny nation’s attitude to women’s rights and homosexuality has also raised concerns which were laughed off by FIFA president Sepp Blatter. More on him later.