Swiss authorities began an extraordinary early-morning operation here Wednesday to arrest several top soccer officials and extradite them to the United States on federal corruption charges.
As leaders of FIFA, soccer's global governing body, gathered for their annual meeting, Swiss law enforcement officials arrived unannounced at the Baur au Lac hotel, an elegant five-star property with views of the Alps and Lake Zurich.
The arrests were made at the request of the U.S. Justice Department, which brought charges in the Eastern District of New York, based in Brooklyn.
The charges allege widespread corruption in FIFA over the past two decades, involving bids for World Cups as well as marketing and broadcast deals, according to three law enforcement officials with direct knowledge of the case. The charges include wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering, and officials said they targeted members of FIFA's powerful executive committee, which wields enormous power and does its business largely in secret.
The arrests were a startling blow to FIFA, a multibillion-dollar organization that governs the world's most popular sport but has been plagued by accusations of bribery for decades.
The inquiry is also a major threat to Sepp Blatter, FIFA's longtime president who is generally recognized as the most powerful person in sports, although he was not charged. An election, seemingly preordained to give him a fifth term as president, is scheduled for Friday.
Prosecutors planned to unseal an indictment against more than 10 officials, not all of whom are in Zurich, law enforcement officials said. Among them are Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands, a vice president of the executive committee; Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay, who is also an executive committee vice president and until recently was the president of South America's soccer association; and Jack Warner of Trinidad and Tobago, a former member of the executive committee who has been accused of numerous ethical violations.
"We're struck by just how long this went on for and how it touched nearly every part of what FIFA did," a law enforcement official said. "It just seemed to permeate every element of the federation and was just their way of doing business. It seems like this corruption was institutionalized."
The case is the most significant yet for U.S. Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, who took office last month. She previously served as the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, where she supervised the FIFA investigation.
With more than $1.5 billion in reserves, FIFA is as much a global financial conglomerate as a sports organization. With countries around the world competing aggressively to win the bid to host the World Cup, Blatter has commanded the fealty of anyone who wanted a piece of that revenue stream. He and FIFA have weathered corruption controversies in the past, but none involved charges of federal crimes in a U.S. court.
U.S. law gives the Justice Department wide authority to bring cases against foreign nationals living abroad, an authority that prosecutors have used repeatedly in international terrorism cases. Those cases can hinge on the slightest connection to the United States, like the use of a U.S. bank or Internet service provider.
Switzerland's treaty with the United States is unusual in that it gives Swiss authorities the power to refuse extradition for tax crimes, but on matters of general criminal law, the Swiss have agreed to turn people over for prosecution in U.S. courts.
The case further mars the reputation of FIFA's leader, Blatter, who has for years acted as a de facto head of state. Politicians, star players, national soccer officials and global corporations that want their brands attached to the sport have long genuflected before him.
Critics Law enforcement officials said much of the inquiry involves CONCACAF, one of the six regional confederations that compose FIFA. CONCACAF - which stands for Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football - includes major countries like the United States and Mexico, and also tiny ones like Barbados and Montserrat.
CONCACAF was led from 1990 to 2011 by Warner, the longtime head of Trinidad and Tobago's federation. A key power broker in FIFA's governing executive committee, Warner had been dogged by accusations of corruption. He was accused of illegally profiting from the resale of tickets to the 2006 World Cup and of withholding the bonuses of the Trinidad players who participated in that tournament.
Warner resigned his positions in FIFA, CONCACAF and his national association in 2011 amid mounting evidence that he had been part of an attempt to buy the votes of Caribbean federation officials in the 2010 FIFA presidential election. A 2013 CONCACAF report also found that he had received tens of millions of dollars in misappropriated funds.
But according to the rules of FIFA at the time, Warner's resignation led to the immediate closure of all ethics committee cases against him. "The presumption of innocence is maintained," FIFA said in a short statement announcing his departure.
No recent incident better encapsulated FIFA's unusual power dynamic than the bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments, which many observers found to be flawed from the start: the decision to award two tournaments at once, critics said, would invite vote-trading and other inducements.
Since only the 24 members of the executive committee would decide on the hosts, persuading even a few of them might be enough to swing the vote. Even before the vote took place, two committee members - Amos Adamu of Nigeria and Reynald Temarii of Tahiti - were suspended after an investigation by The Sunday Times caught both men on tape asking for payments in exchange for their support. It was later revealed by England's bid chief that four executive committee members had solicited bribes from him for their votes; one asked for $2.5 million, while another, Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay, requested a knighthood.