Six high-ranking international soccer officials were arrested Wednesday as part of a U.S. investigation into corruption at the sport’s governing body. Hours later, FIFA’s headquarters were raided as part of a parallel probe into alleged bribes relating to the awarding of two World Cup tournaments.
Numerous top current and former FIFA officials were expected to be charged Wednesday in the U.S. on fraud and bribery-related charges, U.S. law enforcement officials told NBC News.
Swiss justice ministry spokesman Folco Galli told NBC News that the case is “related to tournaments in the United States and Latin America.”
In a separate case, the Swiss attorney general’s office announced Wednesday that it had launched a criminal investigation into “irregularities” and “unjust enrichment” linked to the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Investigators seized documents at FIFA’s Zurich headquarters.
“Investigations are being carried out on the suspicion of criminal mismanagement … There are also suspicions of money laundering through Swiss bank accounts,” the attorney general’s office said in a statement. Ten people were facing questioning, it added.
Earlier, at least six suspects were detained at a luxury hotel in Zurich, Switzerland. They included representatives of sports media and sports promotion firms. They are alleged to have been involved in schemes to make payments to FIFA delegates and other functionaries of FIFA sub-organizations totaling more than $100 million, Swiss authorities said.
“In return, it is believed that they received media, marketing, and sponsorship rights in connection with soccer tournaments in Latin America,” the FOJ said in a statement. “According to the U.S. request [for extradition], these crimes were agreed and prepared in the U.S., and payments were carried out via U.S. banks.”
The statement added the detained individuals were being investigated “on suspicion of the acceptance of bribes and kickbacks between the early 1990s and the present day.”
It was unclear early Wednesday whether the probe was also linked to the 1994 World Cup hosted by the United States.
The arrests were made at the lakeside Baur au Lac Hotel in downtown Zurich, long favored as a place for senior FIFA officials to stay.
Swiss authorities were questioning the soccer officials Wednesday as to their willingness to be extradited to the U.S.
“Depending on whether the suspects will consent to the extradition immediately or whether they will challenge the arrest with legal measures, the extradition could happen fairly quickly or take several months,” Galli added.
FIFA officials have been under investigation by the FBI for several years as questions have swirled over whether top officials were paid large bribes to select the host country for the World Cup final round dating back years. A one-time FIFA executive from the U.S. had been cooperating with the FBI in helping to target leading FIFA officials.
Russia is set to host the 2018 tournament, while Qatar was chosen to host in 2022. Brazil hosted the games in 2014 and South Africa in 2010. The selection of Qatar was widely questioned because of the tiny emirate’s blistering heat, human-rights record and lack of history in the sport, along with the close ties of its ruling family to FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who is expected to win re-election for a fifth term this week.
Galli stressed that the corruption allegations in the U.S.-led investigation are not related to the World Cups awarded to Russia or Qatar.
Blatter was not among the men arrested, FIFA spokesman Walter de Gregorio told The Associated Press. “He is not involved at all,” De Gregorio said.
FIFA has grown from a small nonprofit organization that did little more than award the World Cup hosting rights to arguably the most powerful and richest sports organization in the world since Blatter was elected president in 1998.
In an interview published Sunday, Blatter likened himself to a Swiss mountain goat, famed for its stubborn endurance.
Last year, FIFA closed its own internal investigation, saying there was no corruption in the World Cup bidding in a 42-page summary of a report by Michael J. Garcia, a former U.S. attorney for Manhattan.
Garcia resigned in protest over FIFA’s refusal to release his full 430-page report, which he filed in September, and he has expressed deep frustration that a nondisclosure agreement bars him from publicizing his own findings.
Earlier this month, ESPN quoted a former media consultant for Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid as saying she was in the room as Qatari officials offered $1.5. million each to two members of the Executive Committee for their votes.
In 2010, The Sunday Times of London published video of an Executive Committee member accepting what he thought were bribes from a reporter acting undercover.
Last year, The Sunday Times reported on millions of secret FIFA documents that it alleged proved that Mohammed bin Hammam, a Qatari former member of the Executive Committee, bribed FIFA officials to the tune of $5 million in return for their support for Qatar’s bid. FIFA’s redacted version of Garcia’s report cleared Qatar of all wrongdoing.
Blatter has since called awarding the World Cup to Qatar a “mistake” but has said the decision won’t be revisited. “You know, one makes a lot of mistakes in life,” he said in a Swiss TV interview.
Damian Collins, the British MP who founded the reform group New FIFA Now, said the news was hugely significant for FIFA and could have a massive impact on the governing body.
“The chickens are finally coming home to roost and this sounds like a hugely significant development for FIFA,” he told Reuters. “It proves that Sepp Blatter’s promises over the last few years to look into corruption at FIFA have not materialized and because he has totally failed to do this, it has been left to an outside law enforcement agency to do the job and take action.”
Keir Radnedge, a British journalist who covers politics in soccer, said the arrests represented the “greatest crisis in FIFA’s modern history.”
Speaking to NBC News from Zurich, he said the development was an “amazing milestone” in the long-running allegations of corruption within the sport’s governing body.
“In the past, FIFA has managed to keep these allegations at bay, usually with people disappearing from the sport when they were suspected of something,” he said. “FIFA has a bad enough reputation, but if it is possible to get lower than rock bottom, then this is it.”
NBC News’ Alexander Smith, Alastair Jamieson and Jason Cumming, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.