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The FIFA headquarters in Zurich. (CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/REUTERS)
The FIFA headquarters in Zurich. (CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/REUTERS)

A World Cup fiasco: FIFA gets a red card Add to ...

With the first whistle of the World Cup in Brazil just days away, the international body that puts on the globe’s biggest soccer tournament is facing perhaps the biggest test of its 110-year history: And it has nothing to do with last-minute work on the unfinished stadium that is due to host the opening match.

The Swiss-based International Association Football Federation, known by its French initials FIFA, is under siege as it grapples with mounting allegations of bribery and corruption that span the globe and involve millions of dollars.

Over the past decade, allegations that FIFA officials have taken or given bribes or kickbacks have prompted a list of senior soccer figures to resign or be forced out. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation was reportedly investigating some of the allegations. And a high-profile FIFA investigation is under way into allegations that FIFA officials were paid millions of dollars to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, something Qatari bid officials deny.

Just in the past week, those allegations once again exploded onto front pages across Europe, after the Sunday Times in London boasted that it had been leaked a “bombshell cache” of millions of e-mails and other documents the newspaper says show a “plot to buy the World Cup.” Prominent figures inside and outside FIFA have said it is time to take the drastic step of throwing out what they say was a tainted vote that gave Qatar the tournament and hold another ballot.

Among them is Alexandra Wrage, a Canadian lawyer and internationally respected anti-corruption expert who last year walked away from her seat on the FIFA governance committee overseeing the soccer body’s cleanup efforts because she believed FIFA, and its powerful president Sepp Blatter, weren’t serious about real changes.

“If they are interested in re-establishing public confidence in the vote [that selected Qatar], there is only one way to do that now,” said Ms. Wrage, head of Trace International, an anti-bribery organization based in Annapolis, Md. “They really must have a new vote. ... I can’t find anybody outside FIFA headquarters that has any confidence in this decision.”

Allegations of bribery

The mess at FIFA, which expects to rake in $4.5-billion (U.S.) in revenue from this year’s World Cup alone, comes as corporations and governments around the world shift their attitudes toward bribery, a practice that until recently was quietly tolerated as the cost of doing business in certain parts of the world.

With aggressive investigations launched in recent years against major multinationals by U.S. officials, a tough new bribery law in Britain with an extraterritorial reach, and even increasing enforcement by the RCMP in Canada, companies around the world have been hiring specialized lawyers and consultants and bringing in internal controls to ensure they do not fall afoul of anti-bribery rules.

But until recently, FIFA – a sprawling global body composed of more than 200 national soccer associations – had done little to keep pace. Indeed, hands-off Switzerland, where FIFA has its imposing angled-glass headquarters in Zurich, had no legislation covering “private sector” bribery until 2006.

In 2012, recurring scandals over alleged kickbacks and bribery during the past decade finally prompted the appointment of a committee to recommend, and then oversee, governance reforms at FIFA. Swiss law professor Mark Pieth, chairman of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s working group on bribery, was made its head.

And despite Canada’s indifference to its own national soccer team – currently ranked an abysmal 110th in the world – two well-regarded Canadian anti-corruption experts were appointed to the 13-member panel: Ms. Wrage and Toronto lawyer James Klotz, a partner at Miller Thomson LLP. Other seats were taken up by external experts and by prominent soccer figures from around the world.

Mr. Klotz, who had never seen a professional soccer game, and Ms. Wrage, who admits she prefers hockey, joined the committee’s other members in recommending a sweeping set of changes for FIFA’s structure and procedures that are designed to remove the temptations for bribery. The committee released its final report in April, which concluded that more work needed to be done.

FIFA did adopt two key recommendations, naming former New York district attorney Michael Garcia as an independent investigator to look into allegations of bribery, and appointing a German judge and former organized crime prosecutor, Hans-Joachim Eckert, as the chairman of the adjudicatory chamber of FIFA’s ethics committee.

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