On Tuesday evening, Jeffrey Webb strode across the marble-floored lobby of Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel, one arm draped over his wife’s shoulder, toward the grand staircase leading to the hotel’s $4,000-a-night suites. Nine hours later, Webb -- a vice president of FIFA, soccer’s governing body -- found himself headed for less sumptuous quarters, swept up in an unfolding investigation into corruption related to the World Cup.
As the sun rose above the crystal waters of Lake Zurich in front of the hotel’s private park Wednesday, more than a dozen Swiss plainclothes police streamed through the Baur au Lac’s revolving door. Dressed in sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers, the police carried green folders containing lists of names that they ran by surprised front-desk staff. A few minutes later, room numbers in hand, officers fanned out through the hotel, the traditional five-star digs of FIFA executives when they’re in town for committee meetings.
The raid marked the culmination of a U.S. investigation into what the Justice Department calls decades of corruption at the highest levels of global soccer. Prosecutors accuse senior FIFA officials of racketeering, money laundering and wire fraud. Webb, a native of the Cayman Islands and one of eight FIFA vice presidents, was among those charged.
Seven soccer officials suspected of receiving or paying millions of dollars in bribes were arrested, pending extradition to the U.S., the Justice Department said. FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, 79, who faces a re-election vote on Friday, was not arrested.
At FIFA’s glass-walled headquarters, set among terraced gardens and immaculate soccer fields in the hills above Zurich, spokesman Walter De Gregorio said the group welcomed the investigation.
“The president is not involved,” De Gregorio told reporters gathered in the auditorium of the so-called House of Football. “This is good for FIFA. It’s not good in terms of image, in terms of reputation, but in terms of cleaning up and everything we did in the last four years, the processes, this is good.”
As the bust unfolded, Baur au Lac staff did their best to continue offering top service to their guests, even those being hauled off for questioning. At one point a front-desk clerk was overheard on the phone helpfully advising a man that, yes, he would need to open the door.
Within an hour, the men were led, un-handcuffed, to the hotel’s back entrances with cops towing their luggage behind them. To shield the guests from the prying eyes of waiting journalists, Baur au Lac staffers held up ironed white linens to screen off waiting cars.
Webb is president of the regional soccer confederation for the Caribbean and North and Central America, and on Tuesday night his group hosted a welcome cocktail and buffet dinner across town at a Sheraton. Guests sipped beer, red wine and orange juice, supplemented by a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch brought up from the bar by a waiter bearing a tray of tumblers.
The following morning, just as police were entering the Baur au Lac, a red Toyota and a silver BMW pulled into the plaza in front of the Sheraton. A trio of officers headed for the lobby, and a half-hour later -- unshielded by fresh laundry -- they emerged with a guest in a gray suit. The police bundled the man into the back seat of the BMW and placed his luggage gently in the trunk of the Toyota.
The investigation appeared to do little to dent the ardor of FIFA delegates -- in town for the presidential election -- for a fifth term for Blatter. “These next four years, he’s going to finish and put the crown on all the work he’s done,” Manuel Burga, president of the Peruvian Football Federation from 2002 until 2014, said in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel, a 15-minute taxi ride from the Baur au Lac.
Outside the Renaissance, at a cafe table beneath a pair of blue-and-yellow FIFA flags flapping in the morning breeze, Maldives Football Association President Shaweed Mohamed vowed continued support for Blatter. “Corruption is a big word,” Mohamed said. “Anybody can accuse, but whether it’s true or not is a different story.”
The night before the raid, Blatter’s sole challenger, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, passed through the Baur au Lac lobby just minutes before Webb. With all signs pointing to an overwhelming win by Blatter, Prince Ali didn’t look too happy, and the arrests apparently did little to cheer him up. “Today,” the prince said in a statement, “is a sad day for football.”