Under pressure, FIFA seeks Swiss probe of World Cup bribe allegations

FIFA President Joseph Blatter is flanked by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, right, and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, after the announcement that Russia will be the host country for the soccer World Cup 2018 and Qatar the host for the tournament in 2022 in Zurich, Switzerland, Dec. 2, 2010.
FIFA President Joseph Blatter is flanked by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, right, and Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, after the announcement that Russia will be the host country for the soccer World Cup 2018 and Qatar the host for the tournament in 2022 in Zurich, Switzerland, Dec. 2, 2010. AP

Under intense international pressure to act, soccer’s world governing body on Tuesday filed a criminal complaint with the Swiss attorney general’s office, alleging the “possible misconduct of individual persons in connection with the awarding of the hosting rights of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.”

The move came just days after the head of Germany’s soccer federation urged that European nations turn their backs on FIFA, the soccer governing body that organizes the World Cup tournament every four years. Reinhard Rauball accused FIFA, the international federation that oversees soccer, of lacking transparency in its investigation of alleged corruption in the awarding of the cup to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.

“Perhaps one must also talk about the question of whether one is actually still in good hands in FIFA,” Rauball told Kicker, a German soccer magazine. He said “one option” for the European soccer federation would be to sever ties with FIFA.

The suggestion carried special weight because Germany’s national team won the World Cup this past summer in Brazil. A European pullout would be devastating to FIFA and the World Cup, as European nations represent an enormous fan and talent base for the game, and much of its financial backing.

On its website Tuesday, FIFA announced that acting on the advice of German judge and renowned Mafia fighter Hans-Joachim Eckert, it now believed that information developed during its own review of the two awards warranted an investigation by an agency that had the ability to compel testimony and information. It said its own probe had been limited because it could ask only for people’s voluntary cooperation.

“There seem to be grounds for suspicion that, in isolated cases, international transfers of assets with connections to Switzerland took place, which merit examination by the criminal prosecution authorities,” FIFA’s statement said.

The suggestion that bribes might have taken place stood in stark contrast to the 42-page summary of FIFA’s investigation into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 bidding process. That summary, which Eckert prepared, cleared FIFA of any wrongdoing. It said any “potentially problematic facts and circumstances identified by the report regarding the Qatar 2022 bid were, all in all, not suited to compromise the integrity of the FIFA World Cup 2018/2022 bidding process as a whole.”

The summary angered Rauball. It also was criticized by Michael J. Garcia, a former U.S. attorney from New York who wrote the 430-page report from which the summary was drawn. Garcia, whose previous claims to fame include leading the investigation that ensnared former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer in a prostitution scandal, said the summary “contains numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations.”

FIFA declined to release the full report, saying that would violate the rights of individuals who are named as having been investigated.

But the summary did name individuals who’d given testimony implicating others in bribery, a move that enraged the witnesses. In a reaction typical throughout Europe, the German magazine Der Spiegel called it “a disastrous sign to potential whistleblowers.”

“The protection of swindlers seems to be more important than the protection of informers,” the magazine said of FIFA.

It remains to be seen whether Tuesday’s complaint will stop criticism of FIFA, whose French-language acronym stands for International Federation of Association Football, soccer’s official name. In another typical reaction, Der Spiegel said the FIFA investigation “could not be called an investigation.”

The summary notes that FIFA had to rely entirely on those being investigated volunteering information, something that severely limited what investigators might learn. It noted, for example, that the Russian host committee failed to provide requested emails because, it said, it had used rented computers and they had since been wiped clean.

“When nations did not want to answer questions or came up with absurd excuses, they (FIFA) sheepishly accepted,” Der Spiegel noted.

Allegations about the bidding process for the next two World Cups have roiled the soccer world for the past years, ever since it was announced that tiny Qatar would host the 2022 World Cup, a tournament that’s usually played in the summer, when temperatures in the Persian Gulf nation would soar into triple digits. Last week, a British newspaper columnist satirized the decision by noting that the 2026 World Cup had been awarded to hell.

The United States was a finalist to host the 2022 tournament.

The allegations have continued with news reports from the British newspaper The Guardian noting that Qatar had virtually no soccer infrastructure and is having to build both stadiums and in some cases entire cities from scratch for the tournament.

That building frenzy, combined with laws that make it impossible for foreign workers to leave the country without their employers’ permission, created a virtual slave state in which workers were housed in abysmal conditions and were dying on the job at a rapid rate. The Guardian reported that the expectations were that by the time construction was complete, thousands who had been trapped in the country would have died during preparation for the tournament.

Last spring, The Times of London reported on a cache of documents it had received from whistleblowers that the newspaper said showed that millions of dollars in bribes had been paid.

The newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine noted that the summary did make clear that “this was not the end of the process, it was just an intermediary report while Garcia could continue investigation for the final report.”

The former chairman of the English Football Association, David Bernstein, told BBC Sport that it was time to consider boycotting the next World Cup.

“FIFA is sort of a totalitarian setup,” he said. “Bits of it remind me of the old Soviet empire. People don’t speak out, and if they do they get quashed. The choosing of Qatar was clearly one of the most ludicrous decisions in the history of sport. You might as well have chosen Iceland in the winter. It was like an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ sort of decision.”

Rauball said the summary raised more questions than it answered about the integrity of the process.

“The result is a communications meltdown (that) has shaken the foundations of FIFA in a way that I have never experienced,” he said. “Two things need to happen: The decision of the ethics committee must be published, as must Mr. Garcia’s report, so that it becomes clear what has been ruled upon and how it was evaluated. Also, what has not been evaluated, and whether it was justified to omit these things, must be made public. Only in this way can FIFA counter its complete loss of credibility.”

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