By Mark Hosenball
London (Reuters) - American and Swiss criminal investigations into corruption in global soccer are unlikely to lead to any threat to Russia retaining the hosting rights for the 2018 World Cup, according to U.S. and European sources familiar with the probes.
Prosecutors in New York and Zurich are examining whether there were irregularities in the awarding of the rights to hold that tournament and the 2022 competition, which went to Qatar. The executive committee of global soccer’s governing body, FIFA, made the decisions in 2010.
The review of those decisions is part of a wider investigation into FIFA and its affiliates that led to the indictment in May of nine soccer officials, including several people who had served on the FIFA executive committee, and five business executives. They are all charged with various corruption-related offences, including money laundering and wire fraud.
But Swiss officials do not expect their continuing investigation of FIFA will come up with the kind of evidence of wrongdoing that would force the Zurich-based body to reconsider holding the 2018 competition in Russia, the sources said. This is particularly the case given there is now less than three years to go before the tournament, making a switch to another country potentially a logistical nightmare.
The Russian part of the probe has been particularly difficult because the computers used by its World Cup bid committee appear to have been destroyed, which means that many documents have not been available to investigators.
In a statement in response to questions from Reuters, the media office of the Russia 2018 local organizing committee, said that the computers and other equipment had been leased by the bid team, and once the process was over it had returned them to their owner. "The computers became obsolete and were discarded by their owner," it said.
The committee also said that the Russian bid was successful because of "the excellence of the concept" presented. The bid team, it said, had all along insisted on transparency and international best practice in governance. It always operated "in full compliance with the spirit and letter of FIFA's Code of Ethics."
The committee also said that it would cooperate with any relevant authorities.
Among those who have suggested that the World Cups could be taken away from Russia and Qatar if there is evidence of bribes being paid in the bidding process is Domenico Scala, the independent chairman of FIFA's audit and compliance committee and the official put in charge of overseeing FIFA reform efforts. However, FIFA itself has said that it has no legal grounds to do that.
The Russian government and soccer officials have suggested previously that the investigations are the result of sour grapes by major Western powers whose bids failed. England was unsuccessful in its bid for the 2018 tournament and the U.S. in its bid for 2022.
In the U.S., the FBI and federal prosecutors in New York are continuing their own investigations into alleged FIFA-related corruption, including examining how Russia was successful in its bid for the 2018 World Cup, sources said.
A New York-based FBI squad which specializes in investigating Russian organized crime has now been looking into FIFA and soccer-related corruption for four-and-a-half years.
Any Russian involvement in soccer corruption, including the World Cup bidding, remains a key focus of the FBI inquiry, one of the sources familiar with investigations said. However, FBI investigators do not believe that prompting FIFA to reconsider whether to hold the competition in Russia is, or should be, a goal of their investigation.
The same stumbling blocks are not there in the investigation into Qatar's successful bid as there are more documents available to investigators and that World Cup is still seven years away, the sources said.
Prosecutors based in Brooklyn, New York, who are leading the U.S. investigation, declined to comment.
Swiss authorities, led by the country’s Attorney General, Michael Lauber, have said publicly that they are investigating possible money laundering and disloyal management in FIFA, including in the awarding of the two World Cups. The disloyal management focus is a reference to provisions in Swiss law under which managers can be held criminally liable if they violate their duties or cause or permit damage to an entity.
A German judge hired by FIFA to review its own investigation of allegations of irregularities in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup awards reported in November 2014 that Russia had only made available a "limited amount of documents" to an investigator hired by FIFA.
(Reporting By Mark Hosenball in London; With Reporting by Jack Stubbs in Moscow; Editing by Martin Howell in New York)