Seven of the most powerful figures in global football faced extradition to the United States on corruption charges after being arrested on Wednesday in Switzerland, where authorities also announced a criminal investigation into the awarding of the next two World Cups.
The world’s most popular sport was plunged into turmoil after U.S. and Swiss authorities announced separate inquiries into the activities of the game’s powerful governing body. U.S. authorities said nine football officials and five sports media and promotions executives faced corruption charges involving more than $150 million in bribes. Swiss police arrested seven FIFA officials who are now awaiting extradition to the United States.
Those arrested did not include Sepp Blatter, the Swiss head of FIFA, but included several just below him in the hierarchy of sport’s wealthiest body.
Of the 14 indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ), 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, was searched on Wednesday, the DoJ said.
“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.”
The FIFA officials appeared to have walked into a trap set by U.S. and Swiss authorities. The arrests were made at dawn at a plush Zurich hotel, the Baur Au Lac, where FIFA officials are staying ahead of a vote this week where they are expected to appoint Blatter for a fifth term in office.
FIFA spokesman Walter de Gregorio said Blatter is not involved in the investigations and that the presidential vote would be held as planned on Friday.
“The timing is not great,” de Gregorio said. But he added that “FIFA welcomes actions that can help contribute to rooting out any wrongdoing in football.”
Separate from the U.S. 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 World Cup in Qatar.
Data and documents were seized from computers at FIFA’s Zurich headquarters, the Swiss prosecutors said. Officials said that following the arrests, accounts at several banks in Switzerland had been blocked.
The DoJ named those arrested in its case as: Webb, Eduardo Li, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, FIFA vice-president Eugenio Figueredo, Rafael Esquivel and Joss Maria Marin. An authoritative source said the extradition process could take years if it was contested.
The international governing body of football collects billions of dollars in revenue, mostly from sponsorship and television rights for World Cups.