Fifa v. the FBI
James Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty, has been trimmed of any back story that doesn’t prepare us, in one way or another, for his account of the events before, during and after the election of Donald Trump. It opens in the early 1990s, with the interrogation of Salvatore ‘Sammy the Bull’ Gravano, ‘the highest ranking American mobster ever to become a federal witness’, who explains ‘the rules of Mafia life’. Comey is later reminded of this episode during his first meeting with Trump’s team: ‘I sat there thinking, holy crap, they are trying to make each of us an “amica nostra”.’
Flashback to 28 October 1977, and Comey describes a disturbing encounter with ‘the Ramsey Rapist’ which taught him ‘at an early age’ the value of ‘standing for something. Making a difference.’ Two hundred pages later, he selflessly puts this principle into practice – or it buckles under the pressure of his self-importance, depending on your point of view – when he reopens the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server a few days before the 2016 presidential election, on ‘the 39th anniversary of the Ramsey Rapist attack’.
It’s a pattern with a hole in it, however: A Higher Loyalty makes no mention of the FBI investigation that culminated on 27 May 2015 in a dawn raid by Swiss police on the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich, where senior officials were staying for the 65th Fifa Congress.
Seven men were ‘dragged from their dreams, awoken, told to get dressed and taken out to meet their nightmares’, David Conn writes in The Fall of the House of Fifa. Within a week Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter, for 17 years the untouchable, all-powerful president of Fifa, had promised to stand down. It was very much the FBI’s scoop, and Comey’s summary adorns the jacket of Conn’s book: ‘The defendants fostered a culture of corruption and greed … undisclosed and illegal payments, kickbacks and bribes became a way of doing business.’ It’s arguably a case that only a country whose national sport isn’t football would have been willing to build, and Blatter believes it was motivated mostly by sour grapes: that the US was out for revenge, having been beaten in the bidding war for the 2022 World Cup by Qatar.
It’s strange that A Higher Loyalty doesn’t refer to the investigation even in passing, because it has one important character in common with Comey’s main event. At last, more than two-thirds of the way through, we come to the Steele dossier, which Comey coyly introduces as ‘material … that contained a variety of allegations about Trump … assembled by an individual considered reliable, a former allied intelligence officer, but it had not been fully validated’. He remains mysterious for the rest of the book, but there can be little doubt that Comey knew exactly who Christopher Steele was, and that he was probably worth listening to, because he’d come across his intelligence before, at the start of the Fifa investigation.
Steele’s ‘first client after leaving MI6 was England’s Football Association, which hoped to host the World Cup in 2018, but suspected dirty dealings by the governing body, Fifa,’ the New Yorkerreported earlier this year. ‘England lost out in its bid to Russia, and Steele determined that the Kremlin had rigged the process with bribes.’ He dug deeper, and ‘discovered that the corruption at Fifa was global and he felt that it should be addressed’, so he went to the FBI:
In 2015, the Justice Department indicted 14 people in connection with $150 million in bribes and kickbacks. One of them was Chuck Blazer, a top Fifa official who had embezzled a fortune from the organisation and became an informant for the FBI. Blazer had an $18,000-per-month apartment in Trump Tower, a few floors down from Trump’s residence … ‘It was as if all criminal roads led to Trump Tower,’ Steele told friends.
According to Conn, Blazer actually rented an entire storey, and one of his apartments ‘ended up as the sole province of his cats, which peed all over the floor and made the place stink’. Trump would have been horrified, if he’d known: ‘I’m a germaphobe,’ the president explained to Comey in a now-famous phone call. ‘There’s no way I would let people pee on each other around me. No way.’
The coincidence of the never-ending #Russiagate narrative with Russia 2018 – of Trump and Putin’s ongoing troll-off with the final preparations for next month’s World Cup, and the imminent announcement of who will host the tournament in 2026 – has proved to be a bit of a PR boon for international football’s beleaguered governing body. Compared to a not-yet-disproved vote-rigging conspiracy that eclipses its own myriad variations on the theme, not to mention the danger that geopolitical manoeuvring will boil over into nuclear war, Fifa’s transgressions have started to look like the picturesque preoccupations of a more innocent past. Or they’ve been forgotten about completely. Two senior football administrators told Conn the same tale of a conversation they had just before the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 contests were announced in 2010: ‘they were told by Jérôme Valcke, Blatter’s secretary general: “If it is Russia and Qatar, we are finished.”’ Conn’s punchline – ‘it was, and they are’ – now looks premature.
The bidding process for the 2026 World Cup may well turn out to have been undermined, once again, by the culture of patronage and self-enrichment that endures at Fifa, led from the front by Blatter’s successor, Gianni Infantino. But will anybody care? Trump has already made a mockery of the usual rules of pre-vote engagement. Last week, he used a joint White House press conference with the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, to lobby on behalf of the North American bid: ‘I hope all African countries and countries throughout the world, that we also will be supporting you and that they will likewise support us in our bid,’ he winked, incomprehensibly. ‘We will be watching very closely.’
Fifa corruption is just one more thing that we don’t talk about when we talk about Russian hacking, and Blatter has noticed. ‘I will be present at the opening match, Russia against Saudi Arabia, on 14 June,’ he confirmed in an interview with the Swiss newspaper Blick. ‘If Vladimir invites me, also before at the Fifa Congress. Then two Fifa presidents would be present. Gianni Infantino and me. Because I am still president. I was never voted out, just suspended.’
‘The fire will make something good grow,’ Comey assures us in A Higher Loyalty’s final lines.