Listen to this article
Imagine if the attorney-general of Switzerland asked the New York Police Department to drive up Park Avenue and arrest several senior officials of Major League Baseball. The cops would probably do it, if the extradition charges were drawn up correctly, but one or two New Yorkers might demand to know what business it was of the Swiss to interfere in a traditional American pastime.
The most striking thing about the raid by the Zurich cantonal police at the Baur au Lac hotel at 6am on Wednesday is who sought it. Loretta Lynch, the US attorney-general, had asked them to detain seven officials of Fifa, the international football organisation, and extradite them to face US charges. Yet again, America has displayed the longest arm in international law.
Thank goodness, is my reaction. Somebody has to show the determination and will to clean up Fifa, despite the efforts of Sepp Blatter, its entrenched president, to plough through deepening scandal. In Brooklyn, where the charges were laid, soccer is mostly played in parks and at schools, but Ms Lynch correctly did not regard this as grounds to restrain herself.
The tradition of US law enforcers and courts reaching overseas to get their men and women often irritates. Yet in Fifa’s case, and in its broader crackdowns on corruption, the US is correct. When global organisations become havens for bribery and kickbacks — unlike Major League Baseball — they cannot be left to fester simply because enforcing justice is too hard.
By its own admission, plenty of misbehaviour has occurred within Fifa. Concacaf, Fifa’s member confederation covering the US and Central America, concluded two years ago that both Chuck Blazer, its former general secretary (since turned FBI informer), and Jack Warner, its former president, had received millions of dollars in illicit payments from its coffers.
Yet 79-year-old Mr Blatter keeps going, denying all knowledge and lining up his backers to be re-elected for a fifth four-year term on Friday. “The stress factor is a little bit higher today than yesterday, but he is quite relaxed because he knows he was not involved,” Walter De Gregorio, Fifa’s chief spokesman, put it memorably at a briefing following the arrests.
Mr Blatter should not escape responsibility. He runs an organisation that has encouraged patronage by channelling millions of dollars of its revenues each year into its 209 member federations and six confederations. It has failed to ensure that they are run properly, and to prevent national representatives from being offered money to cast votes for countries to host World Cups.
Until recently, Mr Blatter has been in a good spot to ignore this shambles. As Mark Pieth, the Basel University professor who was asked by Fifa to propose reforms in 2012, told the FT at the time, Switzerland “has this legacy of being a kind of pirates’ harbour . . . it’s attractive [to the 60 international sports organisations based there] because there is little regulation”.
Switzerland has since tightened the law to deter corruption in international bodies, and is conducting a second investigation — separate from that of the US — into how Russia and Qatar were awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. The Zurich raids included the seizure of documents by the office of the Swiss attorney-general as a part of this investigation.
Even so, the US has a longer tradition of, and displays much greater vigour in, pursuing international criminality, including piracy. The US constitution gives Congress the power to “define and punish piracies and felonies committed on the high seas, and offences against the law of nations”. The Founding Fathers did not have football in mind but this is broad enough.
The most powerful law is the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes it an offence for a US company — or, crucially, a company with US operations — to pay bribes to officials. BHP Billiton, for example, paid a $25m penalty last week for financing the attendance of 176 government officials at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
For a long time companies and other countries griped about the US asserting its rights as a global enforcer but it has gradually dawned on them not only that an aggressive stance is justified but also that they should do more to block corruption themselves. Global standards have been raised by others falling into line, both in law and in enforcement.
In the Fifa case, US law stretched as far as it needed. Mr Blazer was based in New York, and defendants from Fifa and sports marketing bodies passed through the city. After he became an FBI informer, according to the New York Daily News, he carried a key chain with a microphone to London to record conversations with officials visiting the 2012 Olympics.
Switzerland is showing more initiative than in the past, but the Swiss attorney-general’s office has gone along with the narrative that Fifa is “the damaged party” in the affair, rather than being to blame. This might be formally true under Swiss law but it does little to dispel the impression that Mr Blatter has the country where he wants it.
Happily, the US offers no such comfort. “Let me be clear: this is not the final chapter in our investigation,” Ms Lynch declared after unveiling charges of racketeering and money laundering. Football may not be a US sport but please carry on.
Get alerts on FIFA when a new story is published