US officials blast FIFA 'World Cup of Fraud'
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US officials on Wednesday said FIFA executives arrested earlier in Switzerland had corrupted global football as US and Swiss authorities launched separate and vast inquiries into the sport’s world governing body.
Seven of the most powerful figures in global football faced extradition to the United States on corruption charges after their arrest on Wednesday in Switzerland, where authorities also announced a criminal investigation into the awarding of the next two World Cups, in Russia and Qatar respectively.
"The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States," Attorney General Loretta Lynch told a press conference in New York on Wednesday.
"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," she said, flanked by top FBI and US tax agency representatives.
US officials gave details of a case in which they said they exposed complex money-laundering schemes, found millions of dollars in untaxed incomes and tens of millions in offshore accounts held by FIFA officials.
One of those indicted, former FIFA vice president Jack Warner of Trinidad, solicited $10 million in bribes from the South African government to host the 2010 World Cup, the Justice Department said. Warner issued a statement saying he is innocent of any charges.
Lynch said that the US was not charging FIFA's longtime chief Sepp Blatter, who is seeking a fifth term in a vote on Friday.
‘A red card’
"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 FBI Director James Comey. "Undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks, and bribes became a way of doing business at FIFA."
Of the 14 indicted by the US Department of Justice, seven FIFA officials, including Vice President Jeffrey Webb, were being held in Zurich. Four people and two corporate defendants had already pleaded guilty to various charges, the department said.
The Miami, Florida, headquarters of CONCACAF – the football federation that governs North America, Central America and the Caribbean – were being searched on Wednesday, the Department of Justice said.
"It was a World Cup of Fraud. Today we are showing them the red card," said Richard Weber, chief of the US tax agency's criminal investigation division.
The US Department of Justice named those arrested in its case as: Webb, Eduardo Li, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, Eugenio Figueredo, Rafael Esquivel and José Maria Marin.
Swiss authorities said that six of the seven men were contesting their extradition to the United States, but that one agreed to be extradited.
Separate from the US investigation, Swiss prosecutors said they had opened their own criminal proceedings against unidentified people on suspicion of mismanagement and money laundering related to the awarding of rights to host the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 event in Qatar.
Data and documents were seized from computers at FIFA's Zurich headquarters, the Swiss prosecutors said. Following the arrests, accounts at several banks in Switzerland had also been blocked.
Billions from ads
The FIFA officials appeared to have walked into a trap set by US and Swiss authorities. The arrests were made at dawn at a plush Zurich hotel, the Baur au Lac, where FIFA officials are staying for their annual conference.
The US Department of Justice said the defendants in their investigation included US and South American sports marketing executives alleged to have paid millions in bribes to obtain lucrative marketing rights to marquee football tournaments.
The international governing body of football collects billions of dollars in revenue, mostly from sponsorship and television rights for World Cups.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, whose country hosted the World Cup last year, called for a comprehensive investigation of wrongdoing that would include all tournaments and football activities.
FIFA called the arrests a "difficult moment" but said Blatter would seek another term as FIFA head as planned and that the upcoming World Cups would go ahead as intended.
Blatter faces a challenge from Jordan's Prince Ali bin Al Hussein in the election on Friday to lead the organisation. Other potential challengers to Blatter have all dropped out the race.
Prince Ali, who has promised to clean up FIFA if elected to the top job, said it was "a sad day for football" and called for leadership in the world body that could restore the confidence of hundreds of millions of fans around the world.
Global rift over Blatter
Reacting to the move by US prosecutors, Blatter said he was determined to “root out any wrongdoing in football” and that the investigations would help reinforce measures that had already been taken internally. “We will ensure that those who engage in [misconduct] are put out of the game,” Blatter said in a statement.
However, the scandal threatened to encircle the 79-year-old football boss, with European football’s governing body EUFA calling on FIFA to postpone its presidential ballot on Friday, which Blatter is largely expected to win.
The Asian Football Confederation gave its full support to Sepp Blatter’s bid for another term and opposed any move to delay Friday’s scheduled election.
In a statement on its website, the AFC expressed its “disappointment and sadness” at Wednesday’s events but also said it “reiterates its decision taken at the AFC Congress in Sao Paulo in 2014 ... to support FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter.”
But in the UK the chairman of the English Football Association said that Blatter should leave his job immediately.
"Blatter has put out a statement saying now is the time to start rebuilding the trust in FIFA – there is no way of re-building trust in FIFA while Sepp Blatter is still there," Dyke said early on Thursday in Zurich. "Sepp Blatter has to go. He either has to go through a resignation, or he has to be out-voted or we have to find a third way.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)