Matt Scott: Why the embers of past court battles could be fanned into a fire engulfing Blatter

“Il n’y a pas le feu au lac” – “The lake’s not on fire.” Swiss saying

If the famous Lake Geneva is not painting the sky with flames – and, quite obviously, it never has nor will – it’s said to be difficult to rouse a Swiss to any sense of urgency. Other French-speaking nations believe that in the land of the cuckoo clock and precision watches, time moves slowly. The Swiss are seldom rushed, so they say. They proceed methodically in what they do; carefully considering the consequences and then, sometimes, they do absolutely nothing at all.

This is the perception of the Swiss national character whose authorities are considered to have stood idly by while sports governing bodies headquartered in their cantons were hollowed out by corruption. Yet this age-old reputation for laissez-faire does not guide Switzerland when it comes to FIFA right now. Now its most senior prosecutor, Michael Lauber, is taking a keen interest in FIFA’s affairs.

The Swiss attorney general has even become something of an international media celebrity, such is the extent of his investigation. He has been briefing British journalists on the progress of his inquiries, in a move that precipitated unprecedented action by the FIFA ethics committee last week.

Lauber’s office made it known that it had opened criminal proceedings against the FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, over a CHF2 million (£1.4m, €1.8m, $2.1m) payment made to the UEFA president, Michel Platini. “We didn’t interview Mr Platini as a witness, that’s not true,” said Lauber. “We investigated against him in between as a witness and an accused person.”

Following Lauber’s intervention, FIFA’s ethics committee provisionally suspended Blatter and Platini for 90 days, though both strenuously deny wrongdoing. So why is Lauber now so keen? Why has Switzerland finally found its voice after so many decades of scandal at world football’s governing body?

The answers may very well lie simply in the nature of the charges being prepared against Blatter. He is accused of making a “disloyal payment” to Platini to the detriment of FIFA. This might seem an innocuous allegation (there is no direct translation of paiement déloyal” in English but suffice to say it is in all circumstances a meatier charge than it sounds to English ears) yet in relation to FIFA it is a big deal.

This is because in August 2005 the prosecutor’s office from the Swiss canton of Zug opened a criminal investigation against persons unknown at FIFA for “disloyal management”. Accused alongside these unnamed persons were two of its most senior officials, the executive-committee member Ricardo Teixeira and the honorary president, João Havelange, both for “embezzlement possibly disloyal management”.

The case related to CHF37.4 million (£25.5m, €34.3m, $39.4m) in payments over an 18-month period from June 1999 from a foundation set up by the collapsed sports-marketing company ISL. These went to individuals connected to FIFA and offshore companies they controlled, along with another $41.2 million (£26.6m, €35.9m) detailed in the case, which went out either directly or via offshore companies between August 1992 and May 2000. These payments came to light after the collapse into bankruptcy of the overstretched ISL, whose liquidators sought to recover the monies through a court claim.

The Zug prosecutor found that ISL’s illicit payments were made principally to Havelange and Teixeira. It subsequently transpired that Issa Hayatou (who in a wonderfully FIFAish twist is now FIFA’s interim president after replacing the suspended Blatter) was also a beneficiary. The prosecutor’s judgement uses an unvarnished description of all these payments: he calls them bribes. “Teixeira [and] Havelange unlawfully used assets entrusted to [them] for [their] own personal enrichment several times. [They] acted with intent to enrich [themselves] unlawfully,” the prosecutor ruled. “FIFA suffered an equivalent loss.”

Yet despite this loss at Teixeira and Havelange’s hands, when ISL came knocking for a CHF2.5 million (£1.7m, €2.3m, $2.6m) settlement, it was not the two Brazilians who paid it but FIFA. Its lawyer claimed: “FIFA was not obliged to request Teixeira hand over the CHF2.5m. FIFA’s management saw no reason to request such a handover… those responsible did not simply violate any duty, but rather acted in the objective interests of FIFA and its members.”

This was flatly rejected by the prosecutor. “[This] can only be interpreted as being in the interests of certain of its members, insofar as it was considered an attempt to avoid damage to the reputation of the association, as bribery payments are always associated with reprehensible conduct. Ultimately, it is not the alleged promotion of football and hence the safeguarding of the related interests of its members that is the main objective, but rather the personal, pecuniary advantages of a part of the organs of FIFA.”

Although the judgement notes that Blatter was “in an employment relationship with FIFA”, he allowed this carry-on at a time when the political support of Teixeira, as chairman of the Brazilian football association, and Havelange, as the hugely influential former FIFA kingpin, was vital to his presidency. By clearing up after them was he acting in the best interests of FIFA or of his own political career? As the prosecutor found: “Members of the association have a general duty of loyalty; in other words, the duty not to do anything that might oppose interests commensurate with the objects of the association.”

FIFA’s lawyer in the case gave a series of fabulously contorted defences as to why Teixeira and Havelange had done nothing wrong to take the money from ISL when acting as agents for FIFA. He cited things like retrospective permission having been given by FIFA management. But as was stated by the court: “Approval is only effective if it was validly given by the responsible committee according to the form stated in the statutes. This was not what happened in this case.”

And here is where we return to Platini and Blatter today. The two men swear blind that the CHF2 million payment Platini received was for work the Frenchman was contracted to do while a consultant to FIFA between 1998 and 2002. Yet the payment was not received by Platini until February 2011, nine years after his employment there ended. Coincidentally, it was also about the same time as Mohamed Bin Hammam was trying to persuade him to run against Blatter in that May’s FIFA presidential election, something Platini ultimately declined to do.

We now learn there was no written contract, that it was merely a verbal agreement between the two men. It seems for the moment at least that nothing was put before any relevant FIFA committees to seek their approvals, for were it the case FIFA’s ethics committee would presumably have checked it internally before suspending the two most powerful men in world football last week.

Blatter was found by the Zug prosecutor to have turned a blind eye to a culture of bribes – indeed knowingly so when he became aware of a CHF1 million (£700,000, €900,000, $1.1m) bribe intended for Havelange that had been transferred to a FIFA account by mistake. FIFA’s management and the Brazilians ultimately got away with it in the prior case because compensation payments were made to ISL and FIFA, which the Swiss penal code considers admissible as restitution “if every reasonable effort [is made] to right the wrong caused”.

The judgement in that case brought in 2005 was laid down in May 2010. But if in February 2011, only nine months later, Blatter was himself perpetrating disloyal payments – or, worse, bribes – to Platini without contracts or the approval of FIFA committees, then it is clear every reasonable effort to right the wrong has not been made. The suspicions Lauber evidently has to this effect would seem to explain the uncharacteristic swiftness with which he has acted in the current case.

Il n’y a pas le feu au lac, indeed. But unless he can pour cold water on the attorney general’s suspicions very quickly indeed, it does seem Blatter’s world could soon be ablaze.

Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him moc.l1521586628labto1521586628ofdlr1521586628owedi1521586628sni@t1521586628tocs.1521586628ttamt1521586628a1521586628.