Updated at 14:35 to include more information about the US indictment.
Already besieged by criticism, Qatar’s right to host the 2022 World Cup faces its biggest challenge to date following today’s arrest of several FIFA executives and the beginning of criminal proceedings in Switzerland.
The executives were taken by authorities from a hotel in Zurich this morning and are being extradited to the US to face racketeering and other charges there.
Meanwhile, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland, where FIFA is headquartered, said in a statement this morning that it had seized electronic data and documents from the offices of football’s governing body.
The move is part of its investigation “against persons unknown on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and of money laundering” in connection to the World Cup tournaments being awarded to Russia and Qatar.
The Swiss AG had first opened its probe in March on suspicions that “irregularities occurred in the allocation of the FIFA World Cups of 2018 and 2022.”
The Swiss AG said that while it was co-ordinating with US authorities, its investigation was separate.
Indeed, a lengthy statement from the US Department of Justice makes no mention of the 2018 or 2022 World Cups, although it mentions in passing a “scheme” related to the selection of the 2010 World Cup host country, South Africa.
The US investigation primarily concerns more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks paid or agreed to by US and South American sports executives for media and marketing rights to international football tournaments.
The US Department of Justice said that nine FIFA officials and five corporate executives have been indicted on racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies, “in connection with the defendants’ participation in a 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through the corruption of international soccer.”
“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” stated Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “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.”
Two current vice presidents and former vice president Jack Warner – who denied the charges – are among those facing charges, but FIFA President Sepp Blatter is not on the list.
Most of the schemes alleged in the indictment relate to matches and tournaments held in North and South America. The Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football, better known by its acronym CONCACAF, is headquartered in Miami, and several of its current and former officials are among those facing charges.
The Department of Justice said the South American confederation, called CONMEBOL, is also a focus of the indictment.
While the US charges appear to be unrelated to the allegations of bribery that have tainted Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup for years, some of the individuals targeted have previously been named in connection to the Gulf country’s efforts to host the tournament.
In March 2014, The Daily Telegraph reported that Warner received $1.2 million from a company owned by disgraced Qatar football executive Mohamed Bin Hammam in 2011. Warner was one of the 22 voters who collectively decided that Russia and Qatar would host the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.
In today’s statement, US officials left the door opening to widening their probe.
“This indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation,” stated Acting U.S. Attorney Kelly Currie.
The investigation into FIFA comes two days ahead of the presidential election, which officials said in a press conference today would not be postponed despite recent developments.
Fielding questions from reporters, FIFA spokesman Walter de Gregorio said the leadership had no prior warning of the arrests.
“We were as surprised as you guys were,” he said, later adding that FIFA has no plans at this time to rerun the voting process for either the 2018 or 2022 World Cups.
“This is what is the fact today. I don’t go into speculation what may happen tomorrow. The World Cup in 2018 and 2022 will be played in Russia and Qatar,” he said.
The Swiss AG noted that it had received a complaint from FIFA on Nov. 18, 2014, a point that de Gregorio underlined several times during his midday press conference.
“FIFA is the damaged party,” he said.