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20th Jan 2019

Fifa scandal spotlights Russia

  • Russian football fans (Photo: Oleg N)

Campaigners for tougher sanctions on Russia are saying it should lose the 2018 football World Cup if US or Swiss sleuths uncover corruption in its bid.

Bill Browder, a British businessman who has long fought for EU and US sanctions on tainted Russian officials, told EUobserver on Thursday (18 May) that: “Given the astronomical level of corruption of the Putin regime, it's hard to imagine the Russians didn't bribe anyone who would take their money at Fifa”.

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“If corruption is proven, the World Cup should be taken away from Russia in 2018 and assigned to a new country. If that doesn't happen, the credibility of Fifa will be tarnished beyond repair”.

His comments come after the US Department of Justice, on Wednesday, indicted nine officials at the Swiss-based world football body.

Its allegations, of “racketeering” worth $150 million over two decades, relate to Fifa awards of marketing contracts.

The same day, the Swiss attorney general said it seized Fifa documents “on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and of money laundering in connection with the allocation of the 2018 [Russia] and 2022 [Qatar] football World Cups”.

The two probes are separate, but the US expects to uncover wider criminality.

“Let me be clear: This indictment is not the final chapter in our investigation”, the acting US attorney, Kelly T. Currie, said.

Switzerland noted: “Swiss and US law enforcement authorities are not conducting joint investigations, but are co-ordinating their respective criminal proceedings”.

The idea of stopping the Russian World Cup already came up over its invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine's ambassador to the EU has called for it at almost every EU foreign ministers' meeting in the past year.

An EU options paper on Russia sanctions, drafted last September and seen by EUobserver, also says: “Thought could be given to taking co-ordinated action … to recommend suspension of Russian participation in high profile international cultural, economic, or sports events (Formula 1 races, Uefa football competitions, 2018 World Cup, etc.)”.

For its part, the Kremlin reacted with alarm on Thursday.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin said nothing on the Swiss probe, but he accused the US of “sordid ambitions” in trying to “illegally … persecute people” outside its jurisdiction.

"They, the [Fifa] officials, are not citizens of the United States and if some kind of violation did take place, it was not on US territory and the United States has nothing to do with it”.

Putin’s sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, told the Ria Novosti news agency: "There is no risk of losing the World Cup”.

Gazprom, Russia's top energy firm, said its Fifa marketing contract “is not affected by the situation”.

The Swiss probe comes after Russia’s handling of the Sochi winter Olympics attracted opprobrium.

The 2014 games saw $30 billion of Russian taxpayers’ money doled out to Putin-linked oligarchs.

The Browder affair involved embezzlement of $240 million of tax income and the killing of his auditor, Sergei Magnitsky.

Documents show money was laundered in Austria, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Switzerland.

The Swiss authorities, in 2013, froze bank accounts linked to the case.

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