iStock Editorial/Thinkstock(ZURICH) — In a series of overnight busts, authorities arrested high-ranking FIFA officials over allegations of vast racketeering and corruption involving more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks spanning two decades in soccer’s controversial governing body, law enforcement officials said.
In all, 14 people, which include a trio of sports marketing executives, have been charged by the Department of Justice for allegedly “foster[ing] a culture of corruption and greed that created an uneven playing field for the biggest sport in the world,” as FBI Director James Comey put it. Police are also in the process of executing a search warrant at a location in Miami related to the investigation.
The investigation grew out of allegations of payoffs to officials who decided where to hold the next two World Cups, the biggest international event in sports, that landed the games in Russia for 2018 and Qatar in 2022, according to three senior U.S. law enforcement officials. The U.S. was the runner up to Qatar’s win.
U.S. officials said that one American FIFA official, Charles Blazer, has already pleaded guilty and reportedly wore an undercover wire to record conversations with fellow soccer officials.
The arrests began Wednesday morning at a luxury hotel in Zurich, where top FIFA officials were gathering for their yearly meeting. Electronic data and documents were also seized at FIFA’s head office in Zurich, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice said in a statement. Those arrested defendants were detained pending extradition at the request of the U.S.
The guilty pleas of four individuals and two corporate defendants were also unsealed, including that of Blazer, who the DOJ said has forfeited $1.9 million as part of his plea agreement — one of two payments he’s expected to make.
“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a DOJ statement. “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.”
In a statement posted on its website, FIFA said it “welcomes actions that can help contribute to rooting out any wrongdoing in football.”
“We are pleased to see that the investigation is being energetically pursued for the good of football and believe that it will help reinforce measures that FIFA has already taken,” the organization said.
News of the Zurich arrests was first reported by The New York Times.
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