In 2010, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was working on an investigation of Russian organized crime. In an unrelated case in August 2011, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was investigating Chuck Blazer, an executive committee member of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), for his failure to file personal income taxes. Later in 2011, the FBI joined its investigation with the IRS’s when they began to follow leads into possible corruption in the bidding process for the Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 World Cups.
Together, the FBI and IRS coordinated with police agencies and diplomats in 33 countries around the world to uncover a widespread international case of bribery and kickbacks, all linked to FIFA officials. In 2015, 14 FIFA officials and marketing executives were indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice. Officials were arrested in Switzerland and extradited to the United States, where they were charged with wire fraud, racketeering, and money laundering.
The Justice Department documented over $150 million in bribes and kickbacks paid to FIFA officials. Investigators found that American banks were used in the process, allowing prosecutors to bring the case to American courts. These payments did not include millions of dollars in other possible bribes paid outside of U.S. banks. Blazer cooperated with U.S. prosecutors and provided details about the bribery, including a $10 million bribe paid by the South African government to host the 2010 World Cup.
The investigation found evidence of bribery dating back to the 1990s. Bribes also included deals related the sale of broadcasting rights, merchandise, and sponsorship. As attorney John Buretta described, “The allegations are that it was all about selection. Choosing where events would be held. Choosing who got the rights to broadcast. It was those key choices which were very lucrative to the recipients that created the power here.”
Bidding to host the World Cup is a fierce competition because hosting can have a large economic impact for the host nation, along with the prestige of hosting a major sporting event. Hosting a World Cup involves large upfront expenses. But for some host nations the event can spark a boom in tourism and strengthen the reputation of a host nation for international investment and long-term economic growth.
As the investigation unfolded, 16 more officials were charged for their involvement in the scheme, along with two other officials who surrendered. Most of those who were indicted pleaded guilty, while some await trial as of May 2018. Remarking on the impact of the scandal, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated, “They were expected to uphold the rules that keep soccer honest, and protect the integrity of the game. Instead, they corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and to enrich themselves.”
The arrests led by the United States triggered other nations to conduct their own criminal investigations into FIFA officials. Russia and Qatar both denied wrongdoing in their bids and will host the World Cup in 2018 and 2022, respectively. FIFA introduced a more rigorous process for nations bidding to host the 2026 World Cup.