Another clever delaying tactic deliberately timed so that Sepp Blatter can turn his attention to retaining the presidency without the distraction of corruption allegations? Or, just as plausibly, a clear signal of intent to try and repair the damage and get to the bottom of a saga which, it now transpires, could involve criminal activity by football administrators?
Or maybe something in the middle.
So far the jury is out as to which of the above scenarios is more likely to apply to FIFA after the latest and most dramatic development in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bid investigation: FIFA’s lodging of a criminal complaint against individuals connected to the bids to host the next two tournaments in Russia and Qatar.
Despite still insisting it cannot publish Michael Garcia’s 430-page report for fear of breaking its own rules, FIFA has turned to the Swiss justice authorities – meaning anyone deemed to have committed a criminal offense in the country in connection with the controversial bid process could technically be prosecuted.
In his summation of Garcia’s report last week when he cleared Qatar and Russia of corruption, and by doing so ruled out a revote, it seems to have been conveniently forgotten that ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert left the door open – wide open – for any individuals to be sanctioned down the road.
Who are these individuals who might have committed material acts of wrongdoing on Swiss territory? It would appear they can just be just about anyone connected with the bid process. In other words voting executive committee members at the time, officials of bid teams, consultants or even hangers-on outside football deemed to have aided and abetted any malpractice.
Until the Swiss authorities decide whether to bring a case against any of them, in all likelihood we won’t know their names or what criminal acts they are alleged to have committed.
But they must know who they are and are surely sleeping somewhat uneasily in their beds at the prospect of being unable to hide behind FIFA’s complex bureaucracy for much longer.
Some may even have left the organisation and no longer be involved in football. But that won’t necessarily stop a legal case being brought against them if the Swiss authorities can prove FIFA’s assertion that “in isolated cases, international transfers of assets with connections to Switzerland” may have taken place during the bid process.
And this is what takes the inquiry to a whole new level. For assets, read money. For money, read bribes.
However much flak FIFA are now taking for buck-passing and effectively saying the matter is out of their hands, Blatter has a point when he says that if FIFA had anything to hide, they would hardly be taking the matter to the Office of the Swiss Attorney General.
The fact is, FIFA is a sports organisation and whether we like it or not, sports organisations only have limited powers when it comes to punishing corrupt parties. They can’t, for instance, put crooks in prison. The Swiss justice authorities can.
A counter-argument, of course, is that if FIFA believe there is sufficient gravity to bring a criminal case (or cases), why didn’t they take action earlier in the investigation rather than only when they found themselves backed into a corner by the spat between Eckert and Garcia over what should and shouldn’t be published.
It’s a question Blatter will surely be asked to address whenever he is next in front of the world’s media though to accuse him of orchestrating the whole thing in order to make sure Qatar holds on to the World Cup in 2022 is to conveniently forget that he almost certainly didn’t vote for the Gulf state back in December 2010.
In the meantime, with criminal charges now a genuine possibility, as we wrote in these pages yesterday, the rumour mill seems certain to get into full swing again as to who the finger of fate will be pointed at. Under planned new Swiss laws, impunity may soon be a thing of the past for international sports officials based in the country, laws that will see their business affairs closely monitored and make bribery a criminal offence though it is not clear whether this could be applied retrospectively in terms of snaring anyone acting dishonestly during the bid process.
And what of Garcia’s own position now? With his entire file into the awarding of both 2018 and 2022 certain to be made available to the Swiss Attorney General’s office, we wait to discover whether the American prosecutor – so keen to have the report made public to all and sundry – will go ahead with his intention to appeal against Eckert’s “erroneous” interpretation of his two-year probe.
The pair are due to meet tomorrow to thrash out their differences. Eckert has dismissed claims of a whitewash but will that wash, so to speak, with Garcia? Will the feisty American back down now that he knows the Swiss authorities can do what he couldn’t, in other words subpoena suspects and arrest those he feels deserve to have the book thrown at them?
Alternatively, will he take the view that by handing over his entire file to the Swiss attorney general rather than making it public, its true contents may never see the light of day and that FIFA is washing its hands of the whole debacle?
We should find out pretty soon.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at email@example.com