It was the word “entities” that got tongues wagging. What was the US attorney general referring to when she opened up a fresh can of worms by warning football to expect a another surge of corruption-related arrests, this time involving entities as well as individuals? Companies? Confederations?
Loretta Lynch wouldn’t give specifics but whatever she meant, America’s highest-ranking prosecutor, whose stunning revelations three and half months ago about systematic money-laundering and rackeetering brought FIFA to its knees and plunged a string of its executives into disgrace, made it clear in no uncertain terms that the net is closing. No-one, she implied, is now safe if they were guilty of financial fraud on US soil.
To have Lynch, in FIFA’s own backyard, pouring more scorn on potential fraudsters must have been an uncomfortable sight, to say the least, for Sepp Blatter and his senior staff in their offices up in the hills a few minutes’ drive away.
Ostensibly, the occasion was the four-day 20th annual conference of the International Association of Prosecutors. The theme, according to the IAP’s website, was ‘White-Collar Crime, Corruption and Money Laundering’.
But timing is everything and the venue could not have been more sensitive as Lynch, in front of the world’s media, put FIFA and football under the microscope publicly for the first time since her bombshell announcement from New York about $150 million of fraud allegations.
The IAP is based in the Hague but here we were in the city not only where FIFA has its headquarters but just down the road from the where the worst scandal in the organisation’s history erupted with that dramatic dawn hotel raid on Fifa bigwigs.
The Americans are second to none when it comes to seizing maximum PR exposure. Far from keeping her distance from the European media while the corruption case is ongoing, Lynch decided to stage a joint press conference with her Swiss counterpart, Michael Lauber – whose organisation is conducting a separate probe – to outline the “status of the two criminal proceedings”.
Manna from heaven, of course, for us media organisations. The fact it took place in the very same hotel that hosted both Conmebol and CONCACAF delegates who attended the FIFA congress last May – two confederations whose top brass have since been brutally exposed by the FBI probe – only heightened the interest and intrigue.
You didn’t need a university degree to work out the opportunistic significance of Lynch and Lauber holding fort at a venue that has become associated with football’s dirty dealing. Thus, when Lynch was asked directly whether the outgoing FIFA president was one of those who could be cited in the anticipated next wave of arrests and whether he was in danger if he stepped outside the protective borders of Switzerland, you could almost hear a pin drop.
“I have no comment on individuals who may or may not be subject to the next round of arrests so I cannot give you any information about Mr Blatter’s travel plans,” she answered. Cue a burst of pent-up laughter from attending scribes at the gentle joke.
But it would have been no joke to Blatter whose only foreign trip since the arrests was to Russia last month for 2014 World Cup qualifying draw. Whatever he was doing at the time of Lynch’s appearance yesterday – probably watching it on the stream – her revelations will not have made him feel any better. Blatter may have commissioned the most stringent set of reforms ever drawn up by FIFA in an attempt to leave a positive legacy but many will now take the view that the stable door has been shut after the horse has bolted.
Lynch’s remarks – and those of Lauber – would have been no joke either on anyone remotely connected with FIFA who has so far been outside the investigation but who may now be quaking in their non-playing boots. Especially those who own property in and around the Swiss Alps.
Anyone who thought the two investigations were perhaps being scaled down must now think again. Lauber’s disclosure that as part of the Swiss investigation into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bid process Alpine properties had been searched as potentially dodgy financial assets is certain to prompt intensive media scrutiny. “I would like to emphasise that investments in real estate can be misused for the purpose of money laundering,” he told reporters pointedly. Crickey. Wait for the next time a football official – any football official – is seen in any of those picture postcard ski resorts especially if journalists are around.
The irony of the Swiss investigation is that, in an effort to show they were not afraid of the truth, FIFA were the ones who called for the judicial authorities to get involved in the first place. Could it come back to haunt them? Certainly the fact that the Swiss authorities have now seized 11 terabytes of data, apparently equivalent to around 900 million pages of information, appears to leave FIFA dangerously exposed.
But perhaps not exposed enough for the Swiss to start detaining and laying charges. “One question has arisen in our minds as, since we opened our criminal case against unknown persons, almost no foreign jurisdiction has requested mutual legal assistance so far,” said Lauber. “One can only speculate on why this is how it is.”
Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that corruption in sport is not given much priority. Not when compared to organised crime, at least. Perhaps that will now change.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at email@example.com