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Police Blatter: FIFA Boss Questioned By Swiss Authorities as U.S. Closes In

Swiss authorities pick up FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, once untouchable, for questioning.

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In May, the U.S. Justice Department caught FIFA minnows, arresting 14 of the organization’s top soccer and marketing officials. On Friday, Swiss authorities targeted the big fish: embattled FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter.

Investigators in Switzerland announced Friday they have opened criminal proceedings against one of the most powerful men in world football. Blatter was interrogated on “suspicion of criminal mismanagement and misappropriation” in connection with the assignment of prized World Cup television rights. According to a statement from office of the Swiss attorney general, Blatter is being investigated for handing control of these rights to Jack Warner, a former FIFA official with the Caribbean Football Union, who was indicted on U.S. charges in late May.

According to Swiss authorities, “on 12 September 2005 Mr. Joseph Blatter has signed a contract with the Caribbean Football Union (with Jack Warner as the President at this time); this contract was unfavorable for FIFA.”

The FIFA chief, who has been president of soccer’s global governing body for 17 years, is also under suspicion of making a “disloyal payment” of two million Swiss francs, or about $2 million, to Michel Platini, president of the European soccer federation UEFA.  Blatter was picked up after a FIFA executive committee meeting in Zurich, where his office was searched and data was seized.

Platini, who is the favorite to replace Blatter in elections slated for next February, was also questioned. Blatter said he would resign in June, as the U.S.-Swiss investigations heated up, and just days after he was an elected to a fifth term. He’s continued to act as president in the run-up to the February vote.

U.S. and Swiss authorities have long said Blatter, a Swiss national, is the target of the probe. But he’s proven elusive. Blatter didn’t travel to Canada for the Women’s World Cup in June and July amid rumors he would be arrested; Blatter himself said he would not risk traveling during the investigation, although he did go to Russia in July. It was the first time he missed the tournament as FIFA president.

Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said she anticipates “being able to bring additional charges against individuals and entities” as the Justice Department continues to investigate a $150 million bribery and racketeering conspiracy within FIFA. The Justice Department declined to comment Friday on the status of its inquiry.

Until Friday, Blatter had been untouchable. He’s skirted rumors of match-fixing, graft, and the exploitation of poor nations like South Africa and Brazil, countries that hosted the last two men’s World Cups. But he’s been undermined by accusations of rigging votes on which nations should host the next two World Cups, which since have been awarded to Russia in 2018, and Qatar in 2022.

The 2022 World Cup has been especially disturbing to many in the global human rights and football communities. Summer temperatures in the small, oil-rich Middle Eastern nation have raised worries about players’ safety. As a workaround, Blatter declared the tournament would be played in the winter.

Working conditions for foreign workers brought into Qatar to build facilities for the matches are also less than ideal. There have been numerous, documented human rights violations. The International Trade Union Confederation estimates 4,000 workers will die in Qatar before a game is played 2022.

Blatter wasn’t picked up on bribery charges connected to the Russian and Qatari tournaments. Here in the United States, the Justice Department is conducting a mob-style investigation, targeting lower-level officials with their eye ultimately on the head of FIFA.

Blatter’s lawyer, Richard Cullen, said in a statement that “no mismanagement occurred.”

“We’re confident that when the Swiss authorities have a chance to review the documents and the evidence, they will see that the contract was properly prepared and negotiated by the appropriate staff members of FIFA,” Cullen added.

Photo Credit: Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images

David Francis was a senior reporter for Foreign Policy, where he covered international finance. @davidcfrancis

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