Switzerland – hardly a hotbed of geopolitics you might imagine, but then it is amazing what you can achieve when you think of a sentence including the words: football, hotel, and scandal. For football think FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), for hotel think the luxury Baur au Lac Hotel in Zurich, and the word ‘scandal’ sums up a story that broke in May involving FIFA executives, bribery and World Cup selections in 2018 and 2022.
An earlier Hotspot involving Qatar and the 2022 World Cup bid explored why these particular choices proved controversial. The latest element of the saga was more wide-ranging, as US and Swiss officials issued warrants for the arrest of nine FIFA officials and four executives.
Stretching over 20 years, it is alleged that tens of millions of dollars were paid in bribes relating to footballing matters. What made the timing intriguing, however, was that it coincided with the re-election (and subsequent resignation four days later) of Sepp Blatter, the long-standing incumbent president of FIFA.
It is the not the first time that FIFA has endured crisis and it was the result of an earlier such incident that caused FIFA to end up in Switzerland to begin with. Created in 1904, FIFA was established in Paris and faced its first crisis after the First World War when Britain left after failing to secure consent for the expulsion of the defeated countries.
In 1932, after an expansion in its membership and having organised the first World Cup in Uruguay in 1930, FIFA was moved to Zurich. The decision to relocate was take for several practical reasons. Switzerland was politically neutral and geographically accessible to the European membership. As an organisation it was a far cry from its current incarnation, but it was the start of a more professional approach to staffing, finance and infrastructure. It also reinforced Switzerland as a major hub for international organisations.
Diplomatically, the country has been an epicentre of activities ranging from the so-called Geneva Talks in 1955, involving the Cold War superpower talks, to more recent nuclear diplomacy involving Iran and discussions over the future of Syria. It also housed the ill-fated League of Nations in the 1920s and 1930s. This stated neutrality made the Geneva Talks of 1955 and later in 1985 possible for both the Soviet and American governments at a time of military and political division between the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. Later Geneva hosted the long running START negotiations (1982 to 1991) and the so-called New START negotiations (2009 to 2010), which are designed to promote reduction in the nuclear weapon arsenals of the United States and Russia.
A great deal of Switzerland’s place-based reputation lies as much with discretion, business-friendly tax laws, and secrecy as it does accessibility, centrality and neutrality. While we are used to thinking of such things when it comes to banking and trading, we might also reflect on how that might apply to FIFA as well.
One question we might pose is what role have the Swiss authorities played with relation to the oversight of FIFA? It is worth bearing in mind that the country hosts around 65 sporting organisations, including FIFA and the International Olympic Committee. These contribute hundreds of millions of dollars (in Swiss Francs) to the national economy as well as provide local employment.
As international bodies they are exempt from more stringent checks on financial management and general probity, and there is now pressure on the Swiss parliament to introduce tougher legislation on corruption and bribery.
Surely very few Swiss politicians would wish for a repeat of the scenes of the very public arrests of FIFA officials and executives in a luxury hotel in Zurich.