KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Switzerland’s judicial system has been humiliated in its bumbling attempt to bring any sort of case over the corruption-scarred World Cup bidding process for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
A five-year, slow-motion prosecution of a bunch of former international football powerbrokers collapsed on Monday in Bellinzona after falling victim to a statute of limitations over charges arising out of a mystery loan, a slush fund and a gala that never was.
Hence a quartet who were once among the important in the international game – Theo Zwanziger, Horst R Schmidt, Wolfgang Niersbach and Urs Linsi – emerged into innocent light at the end of their tunnel.
This is far from the only FIFA-linked file in the purview of the Swiss courts. Around 24 further cases bobble along, most arising out of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup awards and/or information unearthed by the United States’ FIFAGate investigation.
However the future of all these cases is now in question as is that of Attorney-General Michael Lauber.
The Bellinzona case was sparked by events during the 2006 World Cup bidding campaign when Germany was pursuing host rights in competition with South Africa, England and Morocco.
Along the way bid president Franz Beckenbauer had floated the concept of a Gala Opening Ceremony separate from the formal Opening Match.
Nothing more was heard of the idea until after Germany had won the ballot in July 2000 amid controversial circumstances. Oceania president Charlie Dempsey flew home before the final vote, muttering darkly about threats to his life and family. Germany edged the Rainbow Nation by one vote.
Jubilant Beckenbauer, asked subsequently about the Opening Gala, dismissed the project as having been judged too costly. And that was the end of the matter. Except that it was not.
In due course the 2006 World Cup finals were a popular success in which organising committee bosses such as Beckenbauer, DFB president Zwanziger, general secretary Schmidt, communications chief Niersbach and FIFA general secretary Linsi could all bask.
They have not all lived happily ever after. Beckenbauer was not only entangled in the 2018/2022 World Cup farrago but has been battered by health troubles and family tragedy; Zwanziger was ousted as DFB president by Niersbach who had, previously, taken over from Schmidt as ceo; Linsi was abruptly fired by FIFA in 2007.
Years later, in autumn 2015, a damning letter emerged from a dusty old DFB file. This revealed that in April 2000 Beckenbauer, on behalf of the bid committee, had obtained a 10.3m Swiss francs loan from the French-Swiss businessman Robert Louis-Dreyfus. The latter was then ceo of Adidas whose long-time ambassadors included . . . Beckenbauer.
Niersbach claimed later that the monies had been needed to meet initial organisational costs and had been set against funds due from FIFA with the approval of its then president, Sepp Blatter. The German media suspected a slush fund, particularly when it emerged that a similar sum had ended up with Mohamed bin Hamman, the infamous but influential Asian president.
Blatter has denied all knowledge or memory of the affair.
Ultimately Louis-Dreyfus demanded his money back. This was repaid not directly by the DFB but by FIFA at the organising committee’s request out of the international federation’s World Cup account. Later Niersbach would excuse this as repayment of a cultural event subsidy originally assigned for that non-existent Opening Gala.
Other complexities arose. These included Beckenbauer’s pay package and unexplained links with a betting company. The two issues set the German taxman in hot pursuit of not only Beckenbauer but Zwanziger, Schmidt and Niersbach for what they knew or did not know about bid revenues.
The Swiss authorities followed on, desperately playing catch-up after being embarrassed on FIFA issues by the US.
Eventually, on March 9 this spring the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona opened the fraud trial of Zwanziger, Schmidt, Niersbach and Linsi relating to the mysterious 10.3m Swiss francs loan. Beckenbauer was not charged because of his frail health.
All four denied wrongdoing and the three Germans all submitted medical certificates excusing their absence because of coronavirus concerns. Bellinzona, in Ticino, is a cross-border neighbour of Italy’s embattled Lombardy.
Swiss citizen Linsi was the only accused present. Judge Sylvia Frei refused to accept the medical submissions. She ruled that the three Germans could have been driven to court by private car and adjourned the hearing for two days.
On the Wednesday Niersbach did attend, against the advice of his doctors because “I want the right to clear my name.” But he was absent the following day, in self-isolation after a suspected case at the school of his 14-year-old stepson. Judge Frei had no option but to adjourn the trial indefinitely.
Now it has run its course though this is not the end of the entire issue. Zwanziger, Niersbach and Schmidt must still contest tax evasion charges back home in Frankfurt over their questionable bid committee accounting.
The trio had hoped that the Bellinzona court would admit into evidence a damning report about the conduct of FIFA cases by Attorney-General Lauber.
His job was already on the line after revelations of secret meetings over the past five years with Gianni Infantino in the latter’s role first as general secretary of UEFA then as FIFA president.
Lauber has already had to recuse himself from all FIFA cases. Some media and politicians have now demanded that he quit.
Mark Pieth, the Basel law professor once commissioned by FIFA to lead a reform process, was scathing about the Bellinzona debacle. He said: “This is a serious blow for the Swiss criminal justice system. It’s a great embarrassment internationally. This can damage Switzerland’s reputation in the long term.”
In truth, the damage had already been done – a long time ago.
FIFA is deeply disappointed that the trial related to the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™ will not take place because it has now become time barred.
For its part, FIFA fully cooperated with this investigation over the years, responding to many requests made by the Office of the Attorney General and incurring significant costs and management time in doing so. The fact that the case has now ended without a result of any kind is very worrying, not only for football but also for the administration of justice in Switzerland.
We hope that the truth around the CHF 10 million payment will one day come to light and that those having committed wrongful acts will be duly sanctioned, if not in Switzerland, then maybe somewhere else.
For FIFA this case is certainly not over as we cannot and will not accept that a CHF 10 million payment is made from FIFA accounts without a proper reason. Even if this has happened many years ago and was symptomatic for the old FIFA, FIFA’s independent Ethics Committee will continue to investigate on this and other similar matters.
Furthermore, FIFA will continue to cooperate with all state law enforcement agencies, including those in Switzerland, in the hope and belief that all those responsible for causing harm to football will finally be held to account for their actions and will not be able to hide forever with their ill-gotten gains.