John Gapper

US the best referee to discipline Fifa

A logo of the Fifa is seen at the top of its headquarters on May 27, 2015 in Zurich. -- PHOTO: AFP
A logo of the Fifa is seen at the top of its headquarters on May 27, 2015 in Zurich. -- PHOTO: AFP

IMAGINE if the Attorney-General of Switzerland had asked the New York police to drive up Park Avenue and arrest several senior Major League Baseball officials.

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 was who sought it. US Attorney-General Loretta Lynch had asked them to detain seven officials from Fifa, the international football organisation, and extradite them to the US to face charges. Yet again, the US 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 its entrenched president Sepp Blatter to plough on through deepening scandal.

In Brooklyn, where the charges were laid, soccer is mostly played in parks and schools but Ms Lynch, correctly, did not see 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 its former general secretary Chuck Blazer (since turned FBI informer), and former president Jack Warner had received millions of dollars in illicit payments from its coffers.

Yet, Mr Blatter, 79, keeps going, denying all knowledge and lining up his backers to be re-elected for a fifth four-year term today.

"The stress factor is a little bit higher today than yesterday but he is quite relaxed because he knows he was not involved," Fifa's chief spokesman, Mr Walter De Gregorio, said at a briefing after 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 Basel University professor Mark Pieth, 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 part of this investigation.

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 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 US$25 million (S$34 million) penalty last week for financing the attendance of 176 government officials at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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 that not only is an aggressive stance 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, Mr Blazer 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.