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Arrests Put Spotlight On FIFA Corruption Allegations

Storm clouds are gathering around around soccer's world governing body following the arrest of several leading FIFA officials in Switzerland on corruption charges.

Long dogged by allegations of corruption, FIFA is facing fresh -- and more importantly, concrete -- charges of graft leading to the world governing body of soccer's upper echelons of power.

Seven FIFA officials were arrested and detained by police in Switzerland after a raid at a luxury hotel in Zurich early on May 27.

The seven now face extradition to the United States, where authorities suspect them of giving and taking bribes totaling "more than $100 million," according to the Swiss Federal Office of Justice (FOJ).

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told reporters in New York on May 27 that the indicted FIFA officials had "corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and to enrich themselves."

She said that those involved had solicited and then collected bribes from sports marketing firms and others "over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament" since 1991.

U.S. prosecutors also said the arrests were the "beginning, not the end" of an investigation that was being carried out by officials from the FBI and the U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS), among others.

The New York Times and the BBC reported that Jeffrey Webb and Eugenio Figueredo, both FIFA vice presidents, were among the seven detained.

The FOJ did not disclose the names of any of those targeted in the raid.

U.S. authorities have indicted a total of 14 people, including nine soccer officials and five sports media and promotions executives.

Separately, Swiss authorities announced that they were opening their own criminal probe tied to the bidding process that awarded Russia and Qatar the World Cup in 2018 and 2022, respectively.

Swiss police said they planned to question 10 members of FIFA's executive committee who took part in the voting to award those two World Cups.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter was not named in either investigation.

Bigwigs from the soccer organization are currently gathered in Zurich to participate in a May 29 election in which Blatter is seeking a fifth term as president.

Blatter Remaining 'Calm'

A FIFA spokesman said it was a "difficult moment" for soccer's world governing body, but added that such probes were ultimately "good."

The spokesman, Walter de Gregorio, also ruled out a revote of the World Cups won by Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022, saying they will be played as planned.

De Gregorio also said the May 29 election would go ahead, and that Blatter was calm about the indictments, but "not dancing in the streets."

There is little doubt the 79-year-old Blatter will win the vote after all but one candidate dropped out of the race amid disillusionment with the way FIFA is run.

Happier days: FIFA President Sepp Blatter announces Russia as the host nation for the soccer World Cup in 2018. The raft of arrests in Switzerland has now put this decision in the spotlight.
Happier days: FIFA President Sepp Blatter announces Russia as the host nation for the soccer World Cup in 2018. The raft of arrests in Switzerland has now put this decision in the spotlight.

The one candidate he will face, Prince Ali bin-al-Hussein of Jordan, said it was "a sad day for football," but declined to comment further.

The U.S. probe focuses on commercial deals dating back to the 1990s for soccer tournaments in the United States and Latin America, focusing on the CONCACAF region, which governs soccer in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean.

According to the U.S. indictment, Jack Warner, Eduardo Li (current FIFA executive committee president and president of the Costa Rican soccer federation), Julio Rocha (current FIFA development officer and former head of the Central American Football Union), Costas Takkas (an attache and former general secretary of the Cayman Islands Football Association), Rafael Esquivel (president of the Venezuelan soccer federation), Jose Maria Marin (member of the FIFA organizing committee for the Olympic soccer tournaments), and Nicolas Leoz (former FIFA executive committee member) were also named.

Warner -- from Trinidad and Tobago -- left soccer in 2011 to avoid FIFA sanctions in a bribery scandal. His successor as CONCACAF's leader is Webb, who is from the Cayman Islands.

'Lack Of Leadership'

It was unclear whether the U.S. probe was linked in any way to the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States.

In the Swiss probe, authorities said they had seized "electronic data and documents" at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich on May 27.

Swiss prosecutors said their probe was separate from the U.S. investigation, but added that authorities on both sides were working together.

Allegations of corruption are nothing new for FIFA and its top officials, including Blatter.

Last December, a FIFA ethics investigator stepped down after the organization released only a summary of his report into allegations of corruption over the Russian and Qatari bids to host the World Cup.

Michael Garcia, a U.S. lawyer, said the FIFA summary -- which cleared Qatar and Russia of corruption -- was "materially incomplete," and contained "erroneous representations."

Garcia also cited as a reason for stepping down a "lack of leadership" at FIFA. Qatar's bid team denied allegations of corruption.

Qatari soccer official Mohamed Bin Hamman was accused of making payments totaling $5 million to soccer officials to win their support for his country's bid.

The decision to award the 2022 World Cup to the Persian Gulf state came as a surprise after FIFA's own technical team warned that summer temperatures were too high for players.

In the case of Russia, Aleksei Sorokin, the chief of its 2018 World Cup organizing committee, said the country had nothing to hide.

ALSO READ: Sports Reporter Says FIFA Allegations 'Only Tip Of The Iceberg'

Among others Russia beat out to host the competition was England, whose World Cup bid team had allegedly uncovered corruption by the Russian side. According to British reports, Russian President Vladimir Putin called in a "select group of oligarchs" to make sure their bid succeeded.

Russia reacted angrily to the arrests in Switzerland, calling them "the latest case of illegal extraterritorial application of American legislation."

"We hope that this is in no way used to cast a shadow on the international football organization as a whole and on the decisions it makes, including personnel decisions," Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Lukashevich said in a statement.

Disillusioned by the way FIFA works, Luis Figo and Dutch Football Association President Michael van Praag last week dropped out of the race to head the orgnization.

Figo, a retired Portuguese midfielder and former FIFA player of the year, accused Blatter of running a "dictatorship," adding that the presidential election was about the "delivery of absolute power to one man."

Blatter said on May 26 that Figo was "free to say what he wants," denying he was a dictator and expressing confidence he would win the May 29 vote.

Earlier this month, another soccer great, Diego Maradona, had also castigated the way FIFA is being run under Sepp Blatter.

"Blatter is scared...of being left out of his share of the cake," he said. "That is what really annoys someone like me, who has played in four World Cups. I was chasing the ball, Blatter is chasing champagne."

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.