NEW YORK — The leaders of soccer federations corrupted the sport for nearly a quarter century by taking $150 million in bribes and payoffs, U.S. prosecutors said Wednesday as they laid out a sweeping case involving over a dozen people and marquee events as the World Cup.
"They were expected to uphold the rules that keep soccer honest and to protect the integrity of the game," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in announcing indictments of nine current and former officials with global soccer governing body FIFA, four sports marketing executives and an accused intermediary. "Instead, they corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and to enrich themselves."
"They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament," she said.
The racketeering case was among developments that rocked the soccer world Wednesday, when Swiss prosecutors opened criminal proceedings into FIFA's awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and FIFA braced for a presidential election set for Friday.
With soccer officials gathered in Zurich for election, seven of the U.S. defendants were arrested there, including FIFA vice presidents Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands and Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay. Six of those arrested were opposing extradition to the U.S., the Swiss justice ministry said, without naming them.
Seven others had yet to be arrested, including former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner of Trinidad and Tobago. He said in a statement he is innocent.
"I have not even been questioned in this matter," he said.
Prosecutors also revealed that four other people, including two of Warner's sons and former FIFA official Charles Blazer, had pleaded guilty in the case.
Starting in 1991, the defendants and unnamed co-conspirators engaged in 12 different schemes, most involving marketing and media rights to various events, said Lynch and the acting U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, Kelly Currie.
TV and marketing rights are big business for FIFA, representing 70 percent of its $5.7 billion in 2011-2014 revenues. Sports marketing companies can make tens of millions of dollars in profits as middlemen between the soccer organization and the broadcasters and sponsors that want to buy the rights. Keen to keep that business, sports marketing executives agreed to shell out more than $150 million in payoffs and kickbacks, prosecutors said.
They said other schemes involved choosing the 2010 World Cup host country and the site for FIFA's presidential election the next year. Ahead of the vote that awarded the 2010 tournament site to South Africa, Warner directed an unnamed co-conspirator to fly to Paris to "accept a briefcase containing bundles of U.S. currency in $10,000 stacks in a hotel room from a high-ranking South African bid committee official," the indictment said.
The U.S. investigators didn't allege that corruption tainted the outcomes of soccer matches.
Lynch said FIFA's upcoming presidential election played no role in the timing of the arrests. Still, U.S. officials want "to send a message around the world that this behavior will not be tolerated," Currie said.
Added Lynch: "I think FIFA has a lot of soul-searching to do."
Associated Press writer Tony Fraser in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, contributed to this report.