With billions of dollars at stake, Morocco, Egypt and South Africa jockeyed in 2004 for the privilege of hosting soccer's most prestigious tournament, the World Cup. The outcome hinged on a decision by the executive committee of FIFA, soccer's governing body, and a single vote could tip the decision.
At least one vote, prosecutors said Wednesday, was for sale.
Jack Warner, a committee member from Trinidad and Tobago, shopped his ballot to the highest bidder, federal prosecutors said. In early 2004, he flew to Morocco, where a member of that country's bid committee offered him $1 million. But South Africa had a sweeter deal, offering $10 million to a group that Warner controlled, prosecutors said. He voted for South Africa. South Africa got the World Cup. And Warner got his $10 million payout, much of which prosecutors said he diverted for his personal use.
For decades, that was how business was done in international soccer, U.S. officials said Wednesday as they announced a sweeping indictment against 14 soccer officials and marketing executives that they said corrupted the sport through two decades of shadowy dealing and $150 million in bribes.
Hours after Swiss authorities arrived unannounced at a Zurich hotel and arrested top FIFA officials early Wednesday, the Justice Department and prosecutors for the Eastern District of New York declared that their investigation had only just begun.
"These individuals and organizations engaged in bribery to decide who would televise games, where the games would be held, and who would run the organization overseeing organized soccer worldwide," said Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who supervised the investigation from its earliest stages, when she was the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. "They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament."
Soccer officials treated FIFA business decisions as chits to be traded for personal wealth, U.S. officials said. Whether through convoluted financial deals or old-fashioned briefcases full of cash, people were expected to pay for access to FIFA's river of money and publicity. The federal indictment lists 47 counts including bribery, fraud and money laundering.
Despite the broad nature of the charges, the case itself arrived at the Justice Department as something of a surprise. The four-year FBI investigation grew out of an unrelated inquiry into aspects of Russian organized crime by the Eurasian Joint Organized Crime Task Force in the FBI's New York office, the New York Times reported, citing people with knowledge of the case's origins. Authorities soon realized the potential scope of an investigation into the sporting world's most powerful organization.
Though many of the charges revolve around activities that occurred abroad, Lynch said she never had qualms about bringing charges in the United States. U.S. law allows for extradition and prosecution of foreign nationals under a number of statutes, and court documents say that the activity affected interstate and foreign commerce, and took place in part in New York.
In this case, she said, FIFA officials used the American banking system as part of their scheme. "They clearly thought the U.S. was a safe financial haven for them," she said.
FIFA has been dogged by accusations of corruption for years, but the organization and its top officials typically avoided any punishment. That has been especially true for Sepp Blatter, the organization's longtime president who is widely regarded as the most powerful man in sports. Blatter was not named in the federal indictment, and after FIFA provisionally suspended the officials who were named, he issued a statement saying the investigations would make the sport stronger.
The soccer officials charged are Jeffrey Webb, Eduardo Li, Eugenio Figueredo, Jack Warner, Julio Rocha, Costas Takkas, Rafael Esquivel, José Maria Marin and Nicolás Leoz.
While the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar were not mentioned in the U.S. charges, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland said Wednesday that it had opened a criminal investigation into how those hosts were selected.
In 2010, the United States bid to host the 2022 World Cup, but it lost out to Qatar — a small wealthy emirate on the Persian Gulf where daytime temperatures in summer months often exceed 120 degrees.
For Lynch, the announcement of the charges capping the long investigation was bittersweet. She was traveling in South Africa in 2010 when the country learned it would host the World Cup. Citizens were ecstatic with the hope that the tournament would put South Africa back on the sporting map and bring the fractured nation together.
"I remember that vividly," she said. "To learn that was engendered by corruption was truly saddening."
FIFA officials indicted on corruption charges
A look at the 14 people, including FIFA officials, who face racketeering, conspiracy and corruption charges in the United States.
Webb, 50, has been president of Concacaf, the regional confederation representing North and Central America and the Caribbean, since 2012. That post also makes him a vice president of FIFA. His arrest might be the biggest surprise: Webb is widely hailed as a voice for change in world soccer, and he has pressed FIFA to be more proactive in fighting corruption and mismanagement. He was among the few voices who pressed FIFA to release the entire report into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Webb has also taken the lead in fighting racism in the game; he currently leads FIFA's anti-discrimination task force.
Warner, 72, was a dominant force in Concacaf and FIFA politics for nearly 30 years until he resigned all of his positions in the wake of numerous charges of corruption and bribery against him. Because of FIFA rules at the time he retired in 2011, Warner's resignation brought to an end all ethics proceedings against him. That prevented a public airing of the charges – "the presumption of innocence is maintained," FIFA said in announcing his departure – including allegations that he had benefited from reselling World Cup tickets and television rights and that he had used FIFA funds to build a $26 million training center on property that he owned, making him its de facto owner. Warner dismissed a report detailing his financial mismanagement of Concacaf as "baseless and malicious" when it was released in 2013. "I left Concacaf and turned my back on football two years ago," he said. "Since then, I have had no interest in any football-related matter."
Figueredo, 83, was the president of Uruguay's soccer federation from 1997 to 2006, and served as the vice president of Conmebol, the governing body for soccer in South America, from 1993 to 2013. He ascended to the presidency of the federation when Nicolás Leoz of Paraguay resigned from FIFA; Leoz cited "health and personal" reasons for his resignation, but he had been accused of soliciting bribes for his vote in the competition for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Figueredo's time on the Executive Committee was short, however; he recently lost his seat to another Paraguayan, Juan Ángel Napout.
A businessman with Chinese roots, Li is the president of Costa Rica's soccer federation and is to join FIFA's executive committee this week. Last year, he oversaw Costa Rica's hosting of the Under-17 Women's World Cup. He is also a member of the executive committee of Concacaf and of the panel that oversees its regional championship tournament, the Gold Cup.
Leoz, 86, served as president of Conmebol, the South American soccer association, from 1986 to 2013 and was a longtime member of FIFA's executive committee, but he resigned both positions two years ago, citing health and personal issues. His resignation came after he was accused of taking kickbacks from a former FIFA marketing partner during the 1990s, and after an official for England's 2018 World Cup bid said Leoz had demanded a knighthood in exchange for his vote.
José Maria Marin
Marin, 83, was president of the Brazilian soccer federation from 2012 until April of this year, and as a result was the head of Brazilian soccer when it hosted the 2014 World Cup. He is also a member of the organizing committee for next year's Olympic soccer tournament in Rio. Of Brazil's humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the semifinal, which shattered the country's fans and prevented the team from lifting the Cup at home, Marin said this year: "We don't want to blame Brazil's lack of success in the World Cup on anyone in particular; I believe we are all to blame."
Rocha is an official at the Nicaraguan soccer federation and also serves as aFIFA development officer.
Esquivel, 68, has been the president of Venezuela's soccer federation since 1988, making him the longest-serving national federation president in South America.
Takkas, according to multiple news media reports, is a former top official in the Cayman Islands federation of which Webb is president.
Davidson is the president of Traffic Sports USA — a promoter of soccer events — and chairman of the board of the North American Soccer League.
Burzaco is an Argentine sports media executive.
Hugo and Mariano Jinkis
Both are soccer media executives with businesses in South America.
Margulies was charged with being an intermediary who facilitated illegal payments.
New York Times
A global investigation
Indictments: Fourteen people, including FIFA officials, were indicted on charges of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies, among other offenses.
World Cup investigation: Swiss prosecutors announced criminal proceedings into FIFA's awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.