Home discomforts

Sepp Blatter’s native country is inextricably linked to FIFA. But Paul Joyce has noticed a hardening of the mood in Switzerland

Sepp Blatter has always marketed himself as a humble Swiss patriot who has transformed Zürich into “the capital of FIFA, the capital of football”. Yet his compatriots are growing increasingly disenchanted with the self-made man from the canton of Valais. In a survey conducted by the Swiss newspaper 20 Minuten in May, 86 per cent of its readers thought that Blatter was guilty of corruption. And, as his organisation lurches from crisis to crisis, pressure is mounting in Switzerland for regulationson football’s governing body to be tightened dramatically.

According to Swiss law, FIFA is viewed as a “public-benefit association”, ie one whose activity is dedicated to the altruistic advancement of the general public. This means that although FIFA’s revenue exceeded a $1 billion in 2010, it enjoys substantial tax breaks in Switzerland. Despite having made a profit this year of CHF 200 million (£146m), FIFA pays at most CHF 1m per year in Swiss taxes.

On June 1, workers’ organisation Solidar Suisse and the Swiss Young Socialists (JUSO) launched a petition to the Swiss government calling for an end to FIFA’s tax exemption. “FIFA is a billionaire cash cow whose top managers awarded themselves a 50 million franc bonus last year,” argued JUSO president David Roth. “It’s just laughable that this organisation still calls itself ‘public-benefit’.”

Even in Zürich, whose hotels earn an estimated CHF 6m a year from visiting FIFA delegates, the financial benefits of hosting the FIFA circus are being questioned. Last December’s meeting, at which the 2018 and 2022 World Cup locations were decided, cost the city CHF 250,000 to police. Maurus Lauber, the CEO of Zürich’s tourist board, said that he was no longer sure whether the controversial vote for Russia and Qatar wouldn’t damage Zürich’s image. In May, local politicians asked the government toexamine whether FIFA is still entitled to receive tax benefits and how FIFA’s status was checked by the canton’s tax office.

FIFA also enjoys immunity from prosecution under Switzerland’s anti-corruption laws. As a result of a 2004 amendment introduced to entice international sporting bodies to move to Switzerland, executive members of public-benefit associations do not have the official status of office bearers. “These bodies are in the
comfortable situation of knowing that if they have internal malpractices then they don’t have to fear an external investiga-tion,”observed Anne Schwöbel of the Swiss branch of Transparency International.

Yet here too attitudes are changing. Anita Thanei, a Social Democrat MP whochairs the Swiss parliament’s committee for legal affairs, has proposed placing the 60 sporting umbrella organisations whose headquarters are in Switzerland on an equallegal footing with other Swiss-based international organisations, such as the UNand the EU. Thanei believes that there is “a good chance” that her parliamentary initiative will be passed, which would mean that FIFA, UEFA and the IOC would no longer be exempt from anti-corruption legislation.

Ueli Maurer, the Swiss sport minister, has also commissioned a report into how international sporting bodies based in Switzerland combat corruption and whether the existing legal framework governing sports federations needs amending. This report will be published by the end of the year, although any amendments may take up to two years to come to fruition.

Whereas Blatter could previously rely on conservative politicians to preserve the status quo, FIFA’s most vocal critic now comes from the centre-right SVP party. “The only difference from the mafia is that no one’s been murdered in FIFA yet,” stated Roland Büchel, a member of the Swiss federal assembly. A former employee of the sports marketing agency ISL, which went bankrupt in 2001 after allegedly paying CHF 140m inbribes to top sports officials, Büchel has drafted a parliamentary motion asking for new anti-corruption measures by the end of 2011. “My main concern is for the reputation of the country,” Büchel explained. “I was in England in 2010 when the World Cups were being allocated, and all I heard after the verdict was: ‘Typical Switzerland, things like that are allowed there.’”

The ISL scandal could yet be the issue that damages Blatter the most. In 2010, FIFA paid CHF 5.5m in compensation to prevent criminal proceedings being instigated against the FIFA officials who were alleged to have received money from ISL. The order of withdrawal of prosecution drawn up by the Swiss public prosecutors allegedly names at least two FIFA officials who took bribes. It also describes the role of the FIFA leadership who were aware of this corruption, yet did nothing to stop it. Although FIFA have twice been successful in blocking the publication of this document, the court of appeal in the canton of Zug will decide within the next six months whether it should be made public. If the document is released, even the arch-survivor Blatter may not be able to cling to power this time.

From WSC 293 July 2011