Switzerland probes Russian 2018 World Cup bid over bribery charges

By bne IntelliNews May 27, 2015

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Russia's bid to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup is under criminal investigation on corruption suspicions, Switzerland's attorney general announced May 27, after investigators seized data and documents from the Zurich headquarters of soccer's global governing body FIFA. The move comes only weeks before the draw for the qualifying rounds draw of the 2018 World Cup in Russia's St Petersburg, a gala affair of the global sport's stars, past and present, which marks the start of the competition.

Switzerland "has opened criminal proceedings against persons unknown on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and of money laundering in connection with the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 Football World Cups," the attorney general said in a statement.

"Unjust enrichment" relating to the World Cup bids partly took place in Switzerland, and related funds may have been laundered through Swiss banks, the attorney general added.

Swiss prosecutors and criminal police will now question 10 individuals "who took part in voting on the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups as members of the Executive Committee in 2010," the statement went on.

The FIFA Executive Committee awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia, and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, with both decisions arousing huge controversy. The Qatar World Cup, for example, has since been moved to November and December because it's too hot to play the tournament during the normal sumer months. The controversy led to FIFA appointing an independent investigator, former US federal prosecutor Michael J. Garcia, to investigate the awards.

In a summary of the investigation on its completion in November 2014, FIFA’s ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert acknowledged that the investigation showed some wrongdoing connected with the Qatari and Russian bid committees. But Eckert said the wrongdoing was not sufficient to question the bid process in its entirety.

But FIFA controversially refused to publish Garcia’s report in full, prompting Garcia to resign in December 2014 in protest. Now it seems that the report prompted FIFA to report abuses it detailed not only to Swiss but also to US law enforcement, portraying itself in both cases as a "damaged party". In parallel to the announcement of a Swiss criminal investigation of the 2018 and 2022 FIFA bids, Swiss authorities detained six FIFA officials in the early morning of May 27 on the request of US prosecutors, Swiss prosecutors said.

The US case has no direct connection to Russia's 2018 World Cup bid, according to both Swiss and US prosecutors.

"[There is] a Swiss criminal investigation regarding the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups… In separate proceedings, and independently of the Swiss criminal investigation…, the US Attorney's Office… is conducting a criminal investigation into the allocation of media, marketing and sponsoring rights for football tournaments carried out in the United States and Latin America," Swiss prosecutors said.

US prosecutors have indicted nine FIFA officials and five businessmen, they announced on May 27.

The US charges focus on alleged wrongdoing related to CONCACAF, the soccer governing body for the North American continent headquartered in the US, as well as corruption in CONMEBOL, the South American soccer governing body. However the US charges relate in part to the bidding process for the 2010 World Cup that was awarded to South Africa, as  one of the schemes that "relate to the payment and receipt of bribes and kickbacks." 

"Let me be clear: this indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation," US attorney general Loretta Lynch said in the statement.  

Calls for boycott

The 2010 World Cup held in South Africa was the first award of the tournament to a major emerging market outside of the established Latin American soccer giants. It paved the way for the award of the 2018 and 2022 tournaments to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The decision on Russia and Qatar in December 2010 was additionally controversial because it determined simultaneously the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals, which critics said increased the possibility of vote trading and other maneuvers. 

The award of the 2018 World Cup to Russia was seen at the time as a personal triumph for current Russian President Vladimir Putin (at the time he was prime minister), despite Russia's controversial military intervention in the breakaway Georgian republic of South Ossetia in August 2008.

Investigations by the UK's Sunday Times in 2014 claimed that Putin had played a major role in his country's winning bid, including giving Michel Platini, president of Europe's football governing body UEFA, a Picasso painting in exchange for a FIFA World Cup vote. Platini and the Kremlin refuted the reports.

England was Russia's main competitor in its bid for the 2018 World Cup, arguing that it already had the world's best soccer infrastructure, whereas Russia would have to build from scratch many of the venues for the tournament.

English football officials have suggested ever since that Russia's bid won the 2018 tournament as a result of corrupt actions. Chairman of England's Football Association Greg Dyke called for the publication of the Garcia report on its completion in November 2014. "We cannot go on like this. Complete transparency is required if the actions of all those who bid, including England 2018, are to be judged fairly," Dyke told the BBC at the time.

Adding to the controversy over Russia's hosting of the 2018 finals has been Russia's aggression in Ukraine 2014-2015, including its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula, the backing of pro-Russian insurgents in East Ukraine, and the downing of a Malaysian airliner over East Ukraine in July 2014.

The breakdown in relations with the West combined with the corruption allegations have prompted increasing calls for a boycott of the 2018 World Cup if it's held in Russia.

In a first response to the breaking news, Russia's sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, commented on the US-requested arrests of FIFA officials in Zurich. "If you take these people, many of them had no relation to the 2018 World Cup bidding campaign. They were not Executive Committee members and didn't take part [in the bidding campaign]," Mutko told Interfax news agency.

Walter De Gregorio, a spokesman for FIFA, reaffirmed that the World Cup tournaments in 2018 and 2022 would be played in Russia and Qatar, as was decided earlier. Asked by a journalist whether there should be a re-vote over who should host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in light of the arrests of a number of high-ranking FIFA officials on corruption charges, Gregorio said: "Russia and Qatar will still be going ahead."

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