On May 27, 2015, over a dozen incognito Swiss police stormed the posh Baur au Lac hotel in downtown Zurich, arresting seven high-profile football executives gathered to attend an annual meeting of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).
Okay, ‘stormed’ is an exaggeration. They knocked.
The charges: 47 counts of racketeering, obstruction of justice, wire fraud and money laundering totalling billions of dollars involving 14 power brokers of the football world.
Far from a blazing SWAT-style takedown, things were hushed. No storming the bastille, no guns, no handcuffs.
It was, in fact, a most gentlemanly dawn raid: hotel staff draped pristine white bedsheets to shield the modesty of red-faced football barons from clicking cameras and discreetly escorted them into unmarked cars. No one does criminal indictments quite like the Swiss.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a joint press conference by the US Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) revealed the accidental trigger for their four-year investigation into sport’s most powerful, secretive organisation – an unrelated investigation into Russian organised crime.
Tracing the mob’s international flow of money led them to FIFA.
For the first time in its history, football’s global governing body was bestowed another acronym: RICO – short for ‘racketeering-influenced corrupt organisation’ – the politically correct term reserved for the mafia.
Together with incriminating wire taps worn by the now-deceased supergrass Chuck Blazer, then a member of FIFA’s powerful Executive Committee (ExCo), the fate of football’s elite was sealed.
One glaring omission in the line-upwas the man at the epicentre of the FIFA firestorm: President Sepp Blatter, credited with enabling the culture of corruption, kickbacks and racketeering, who remains relatively unscathed.
Denying all knowledge of illegal activity during his 17-year reign as football’s major domo (he was cleared by the US DOJ and FBI as no paper trail or wire taps incriminated him), his only charge of impropriety is an “illegal transfer” of two million Swiss francs to his UEFA counterpart Michel Platini, classified as “back pay” for services the latter rendered to FIFA.
Blatter’s current six year ban from football is a mere slap on the wrist compared to the irreparable damage he’s caused the game and its league of followers.
In 2014, whispers began circulating on the existence of an incriminating document FIFA was trying to bury.
In June 2017, an unnamed source leaked the Garcia Report – a two-year investigation by its chief ethics investigator – in its entirety to German newspaper, Bild.
The 430-page dossier detailed corrupt practices by nations vying to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Bild ran an excerpt of the explosive report on June 26, 2017, promising a serialised release in the coming days.
The next day, a hot-under-the-collar FIFA pre-empted this and went public with the full report… three years after it was suppressed.
The contents were damaging.
Every bidding nation from England to Japan breached a litany of rules to swing votes and they in turn alleged requests of millions of dollars in bribes by exco members.
Russia continues to be dogged by controversy. Despite being formally cleared of “undue influence” or excessive gifting, the report found the state had not fully reported all contacts with exco members, including President Vladimir Putin’s personal meetings with them months before the award, in breach of FIFA rules.
It also noted that the ethics investigation was thwarted by Russians destroying computers containing evidence of unfair means used to win its bid. Russia had “leased” its computers from tycoon and Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich, who supported the nation’s 2018 bid and promptly destroyed the computers after its return.
Rumblings continue to abound of murky payments made by the ex-Soviet state.
The latest salvo on April 17, 2018, by former British Prime Minister David Cameron speaking at Chatham House on foreign policy implied the Kremlin had corruptly won the FIFA bid: “We wanted to lead the world in great sporting events that bring people together. Yet how did Russia end up winning the bid for the 2018 World Cup? I will let you fill in the blanks on that one.”
Crucially, it evidenced Qatar’s vote buying to host the quadrennial games in 2022.
It is a decision that has haunted the governing body as hundreds of migrant workers have died on stadium construction sites. The widely practised ‘kafala’ system – a thinly-veiled term for modern-day slavery – is the backbone of the Gulf kingdom’s US$200 billion structural facelift.
Among others, it legalises 18-hour shifts, 6-day work weeks, employer confiscation of passports and agents who extort huge fees for work permits.
Qatar’s government drafted several new laws in December 2017 to give its 800,000 foreign construction workers token autonomy such as fines against employers who withhold passports and mandating a climate-based work ban when temperatures soar beyond 50°C, but the bodies are still stacking up.
Unofficially, the death toll exceeds 1,200 bodies and is projected to hit 4,000 by the time construction is complete, according to watchdog International Trade Union Confederation.
Officially, Qatar’s organising body says it does not “have the authority or mandate to determine cause of death”. But on all scores, it’s a thousand-fold more deaths than previous World Cups: 10 deaths in Brazil, two in South Africa.
If weather-hardened labourers are dropping like flies, how will European footballers fare? Even after switching the tournament’s traditional June-July playoffs to Qatar’s winter-time of November-December, temperatures still hit high 30’s. Undoubtedly, players will have more than one sweaty ball to manoeuvre on the field.
If all fails, there’s always beer to cool Thirsty Tommies. But wait, isn’t alcohol banned in the Islamic state? According to Qatar, yes. But not for long, if soccer goons get their way.
Since 2014, FIFA has strong-armed hosts to ensure alcohol is sold at all World Cup venues, eschewing public health and safety laws. Brazil risked losing hosting rights if lawmakers refused to lift its nationwide alcohol ban at sporting events. This led tothe constitutionally enacted Lei Geral da Copa (The General Law of the Cup) also nicknamed the ‘Budweiser Bill’ that set the precedent for Russia and all future World Cups.
But Russia is ready to take on lager. Its police are armed with ‘drunk tanks’ and trained to use uniquely risqué procedures in dealing with alcohol-fuelled violence including stripping, cuffing and forced nappy-wearing to sober them up.
“Alcoholic drinks are part of the FIFA World Cup,” stressed secretary general Jerome Valcke, “so we’re going to have them. The fact that we have the right to sell beer has to be a part of the law.” What he should have also disclosed is the quantum of Budweiser’s World Cup sponsorship – estimated at between US$10 million and US$25 million – and how it only allows “authorised alcohol” to be sold in stadiums.
Keeping sponsors happy is key, especially when they are increasingly scarce. Pundits predicted Russia would be the biggest footie flop in history. Scandal after scandal, including claims of state-sponsored doping in Russia, has plagued this World Cup.
Of the 32 sponsorship slots, just 12 have been filled, mostly by behemoths like Coca-Cola, Adidas, Hyundai, Visa, and McDonald’s which have all signed binding contracts prior to the Zurich arrests.
“The FIFA brand has become toxic,” sums up a football expert in an interview with the UK’s Mirror.
This was part of a feature that was first published in the June 2018 issue of UNRESERVED.