They must be either stupid or deeply complicit in corruption.
This could be the opinion of a reasonable person after reading the media articles about the arrests by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Swiss police of high-ranking executives of CONCACAF and CONEMBOL the organizations that run soccer in North and South America.
Some of the purported details contained in the FBI documents are so deliciously funny – the top soccer executive who claimed his only income was as a salesman for a “pet rock company” or that he was suffering from advanced dementia so there was no point in testing his English-language ability (he would go on and run an international sporting organization for the next ten years) – there is a temptation to presume the guilt of all those named in the indictment.
This sense of prejudgment is heightened by the drama of seeing the various executives being arrested in an early morning raid and then led from a posh Swiss hotel covered in bed sheets.
However, let us carefully examine the FBI 164-page report and other documents released by the U.S. attorney general to assess the web of alleged corruption and complicity.
To begin with the important stuff: We do not know, as yet, the innocence or guilt of the accused CONCACAF and COMEBOL executives. Everyone deserves their day in court. Everyone needs to have a chance to defend themselves in a public and fair manner.
So currently we know that the accused are only accused: we do not know if they are guilty or not.
Having said that, the FBI indictment that is the basis for their arrests is an extraordinary document. It is based on the confidential grand jury testimony of 25 senior soccer officials or business executives who allegedly worked directly with the accused.
These co-conspirators include two former secretary generals of CONCACAF, eleven high-ranking FIFA officials, two relatives – allegedly the sons – of Jack Warner, the former president of CONCACAF, a number of people who have direct knowledge of paying and receiving multi-million dollar bribes, and excerpts of transcripts where, presumably, some of the co-conspirators wore covert recording devices and taped their colleagues.
How could they have possibly missed this scandal?
U.S. federal agents carried boxes of evidence out of CONCACAF’s headquarters in Miami Beach in May.
If the FBI allegations are true in substance, it brings up a key question – how could any mid-level administrator connected with CONEMBOL or CONCACAF have missed such systematic corruption?
The FBI claims that the corruption was so widespread, the amounts of bribes and secret payments so large that it amounts to “the World Cup of Fraud.”
For example, on page 48 of the indictment, there is a mention that out of an official CONEMBOL and CONCACAF media and marketing rights contract of $352.5 Million, senior football officials allegedly solicited $110 million in bribe payments – $40 million of which has already been paid.
If this accusation is true, the bribes account for a staggering 31 percent of the total amount of the contract.
In another typical example, on page 85, allegedly $200,000, or over 30 percent out of a total contract of $600,000, was transferred directly from the accounts of CONCACAF and the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) into the personal accounts of Jack Warner, the former president.
These amounts are not small bribes. So how was it possible for such sums of money to go through the administration of organizations like CONCACAF?
Actually there are very good reasons for an honest administrator at CONCACAF to miss possible corruption.
The FBI documents are full of words that are usually used when describing mafia operations: “racketeering”, “extortion”, “bribes” or the ominous – “protection.” However, in this case the key one is “enterprise.” Repeatedly, the investigators refer to the arrested executives as running an “enterprise,” in effect, a criminal organization.
The “enterprise” was, according to the FBI, a small group of mostly men who dominated CONCACAF and CONEMBOL and gave out the marketing and media rights only if bribes and kickbacks were paid directly to them for their own personal gain.
Indicted CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb was also the chairman of FIFA’s anti-racism task force.
According to the testimony of Co-Conspirator#2 who was, presumably, wearing a hidden recording device, one of the accused actually stated: “Is it illegal? It is illegal. With the big picture of things, a company that has worked in this industry for 30 years, is it bad? It is bad.”
Again, all the accused are entitled to their day in court. Whether their defense counsels will argue these alleged bribes were actually legal commissions that managed to wind their way into the personal accounts of some of the accused is to be seen.
However, if the FBI documents are true, the men inside the “enterprise” spent enormous amounts of energy figuring out ways to hide the payments. Entire discussions were allegedly spent figuring out how to conceal the payments from the CONCACAF financial books. There were, allegedly, complicated plans about how to transfer the money of the kickbacks and bribes without any other officials seeing them.
At one point, according to the FBI, a sports marketing company was used to help conduct the transfer of money, so that it was not shown on the books of CONCACAF. At another point, money was, allegedly, transferred through banks in Switzerland, the U.S., Hong Kong and the Cayman Islands before going to the accused.
Ironically, the one specific time mentioned in the indictment that a dubious payment was allegedly put through the official football channels was when FIFA agreed to pay Jack Warner a sum of money on behalf of the South African government in return for Warner agreeing to vote for the South Africans hosting the World Cup in 2010.
Traffic Sports is one of the sports marketing companies that allegedly paid bribes to football officials.
“Show me what a man boasts of, and I will tell you what he lacks…”
The other reason that a mid-level administrator may have missed the alleged widespread corruption inside these football organizations is the image laundering that many of the co-conspirators delivered.
Here is an excerpt of a typical CONCACAF press statement released in 2012 by the former Secretary-General of Enrique Sanz. It is part of an organized campaign to show that the organization had changed from its operations under former president Jack Warner:
“We’ve transformed challenges into opportunities – CONCACAF has a promising future and its soccer continues to grow. Every day, with the Executive Committee, we put forth President Webb’s mission and we create a more transparent and trustworthy Confederation.”
This kind of drink-the-Koolaid verbiage accompanies almost all of the CONCACAF statements post-2011. Currently, Sanz is widely suspected in the media as being “Co-Conspirator #4” and a man who allegedly facilitated bribes and secret payments for a number of the accused.
CONCACAF even gained media praise when, in June 2013, they introduced their own “ethics policy.” A few weeks before Jeffrey Webb’s high-profile arrest and incarceration, he provided a media statement for the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) on the necessity of “integrity in sport.”
What this means in practice is that an honest CONCACAF official would have had to swim through nonsensical statements that were flowing up and down their corridors. It would have been extremely difficult for them to voice any suspicions of alleged misdemeanors.
This situation is in direct contrast with the analysis of many anti-corruption organizations – like Transparency International – who push the idea of “compliance” as the key to solving corruption. In this paradigm, corruption is seen as the problem of middle-level executives, whom the honest senior executives endeavor to keep “compliant” and “honest.”
According to the FBI documents, the situation at CONCACAF may have been the exact opposite: honest mid-level executives working under dishonest bosses.
It also brings up the issue to whom could an honest administrator inside CONCACAF have brought up their concerns? A 2012 press statement about the “transformation of the Confederation” included almost every other senior member of CONCACAF and the American, Jamaican, Mexican and Honduran presidents of their football associations. So potential whistleblowers had virtually no one they could have turned to inside these organizations to independently report their concerns.
This is real problem with the post-arrest world of CONCACAF. Many of the senior leaders who failed to see what their colleagues were doing are still in power. The essential system is still in place. Presumably there is a belief that everyone inside CONCACAF has had undergone a personality transplant and that now the organization will function better because everyone will try harder.
What is needed at CONCACAF is a systematic administrative overhaul. CONCACAF needs a transparent framework which will allow honest officials to work together. One suggestion, a completely independent third party should be provided for the administrators as a potential whistle-blowing outlet in the future. Only in this way can the mistakes of the past be avoided.
Declan Hill is a journalist, academic and consultant. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on match fixing and corruption in international sports. In 2008, Hill, as a Chevening Scholar, obtained his doctorate in Sociology at the University of Oxford.
His book ‘The Fix: Organized Crime and Soccer’ has appeared in 21 languages.