Will FIFA's World Cup bidding crisis lead to meaningful change?
You can walk from the lakeside five-star Baur Au Lac hotel to FIFA headquarters in Zurich in around 45 minutes. By cab or unmarked police vehicle, it's around 15 minutes. Wednesday morning, FIFA executives and law enforcement officials were pinballing between the two trying to make sense of a day that would shake the football world.
Was this it? Was it the beginning of the end for a generation of football administrators and, perhaps, a way of doing business in the highest echelons of the game? Or was it merely another serious earthquake rippling through the ivory towers, taking down many of them but leaving the biggest and most powerfully built intact?
Like in 2002, following the collapse of the marketing company ISL with debts of more than £300 million and FIFA general secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen's allegations of impropriety.
Or 2011, during a vicious campaign for the FIFA presidency which saw football executives Jack Warner and Mohamed Bin Hammam expelled amid accusations of corruption.
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Or, indeed, last autumn, with the partial release of the Garcia report into improprieties in the bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
That won't be clear until later. But by Wednesday in Zurich what was becoming abundantly clear was that now there was a new actor in the FIFA soap opera: law enforcement, both from the United States and Switzerland. The result was a pincer movement, with two entirely separate, but coordinated, investigations, whose timing, 48 hours before the FIFA election, seemed far from coincidental.
It also places the FIFA presidential election on Friday into an entirely different light. What was once seen as a fait accompli, a coronation of president Sepp Blatter winning his fifth term, is now anything but. A number of football associations -- primarily from Europe, where support for the rival candidate, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, is strong -- are lobbying for FIFA to postpone Friday's election.
The crisis all began with the dawn raid on the Baur Au Lac, traditionally the hotel favored by visiting FIFA officials and football power brokers. Swiss police detained 14 men on Wednesday morning, including seven FIFA officials, on suspicion of receiving bribes adding up to more than $100 million in relation with the marketing, sponsorship and organization of football tournaments in CONCACAF and South America.
Among those held and potentially facing extradition to the United States are two current FIFA vice presidents and executive committee members (CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands and Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay, former CONMEBOL president).
The U.S. investigation included guilty pleas from Chuck Blazer, a former U.S. representative on FIFA's executive committee and CONCACAF power broker, and Jose Hawilla, owner of the powerful sports marketing group Traffic. Both men have reportedly been cooperating with the attorney general's office and turned over evidence.
A few hours later, Swiss police hit FIFA headquarters, seizing documents and electronic data as part of an entirely separate investigation into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, to be held in Russia and Qatar respectively.
The Swiss inquiry is an offshoot of the Garcia report. FIFA director of communications and public affairs Walter De Gregorio stressed in a hastily arranged news conference Wednesday that it was FIFA itself who initiated the process in November, lodging a complaint with the Swiss federal attorney. "You won't believe me, but this, for FIFA is good," De Gregorio said. "It's not good for reputation and for image, sure, but in terms of cleaning up, it's good."
De Gregorio's words felt a little like spin, with the FIFA presidential election 48 hours away. Blatter was not named in any of the inquiries. But all of these alleged misdeeds happened under his watch.
So what's next? Will this crisis lead to meaningful change? This is Sepp Blatter's FIFA we're talking about, after all.
In the short term, the arrests will likely have an impact on the elections Friday. De Gregorio could not confirm whether any of those charged who are eligible to vote will be suspended, saying it would be a matter for the FIFA ethics committee and, in any case, there was a presumption of innocence. He did add, though, that "if they're not present, they can't vote."
And he said there were no plans at present to postpone the election.
Even then, it's entirely possible that a number of the 209 football associations due to cast their vote Friday may rethink their position, at least until the dust settles and more is known. At present, Blatter is favored over Prince Ali but it's entirely possible the electorate may well be spooked by the most recent developments.
Longer term, the issue of whether there will be a revote on 2018 and 2022 World Cups comes into play. De Gregorio was initially pretty categorical in that regard, saying that both tournaments would go ahead as planned. When challenged on whether this would still be the case if the Swiss enquiry found serious wrongdoing, he added: "Today, this is fact [that Russia and Qatar will go ahead]. I won't go into speculation about what will happen."
Blatter himself was lying low. It's true that FIFA initiated the Swiss inquiry, but it's equally true that they probably did not expect that they would move so quickly and so decisively. And, crucially, that the timing would be so sensitive, so close to the election.
He likely also didn't expect that the long arm of the U.S. Department of Justice would reach right into his backyard, the Baur Au Lac, let alone two days before his FIFA future would be decided. (De Gregorio said they had no warning about the dawn raid, adding he was "fast asleep" as FIFA officials were being ushered out of the hotel.)
FIFA, and particularly Blatter, have faced very serious crises in the past and, Teflon-like, they've bounced back with the man at the top still in charge. The question is whether this time will be different and whether we could see a dramatic about-turn on Russia and Qatar.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.