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As England licks its footballing wounds, could the SFO exercise its powers to tackle Fifa corruption and bribery?
Now that the England football team’s less-than-spectacular World Cup campaign is behind it, could there still be a way that the country makes its presence felt on the world soccer stage? Why isn’t the director of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) activating Section 7 of the Bribery Act and rounding up all the UK-based executives of Fifa’s 32 sponsors?
Fifa has been mired in corruption allegations for decades. To say it is clean would be a bit like claiming OPEC isn’t a price-fixing cartel. An SFO probe announced last week into the sponsors would gain it worldwide plaudits and be an ideal distraction from England’s performance in Brazil.
Section 7 is entitled “Failure of commercial organisations to prevent bribery”. Its reach is as global as the World Cup. The fact that Fifa is a Zurich-based NGO does not mean it’s offside. Similarly for the sponsors so long as some aspect of their business is carried out in the UK. A single sale of an Adidas football boot via a Visa credit card is sufficient for David Green to apply to the courts for search warrants in order to unleash dawn raids on their UK HQs.
It is a good time to score; the Government has just unveiled the Serious Crime Bill which will award sweeping powers to tackle corrupt advisers of organised crime gangs eg lawyers, executive members of the Police Federation etc. Stealing a march, the director can show belief by transforming the SFO’s image from hapless goalkeeper, forever trying to repulse volleys fired in by the Tchenguizes or its own players into a striker with its own game plan.
Coming from behind, this attacking strategy could rejuvenate the SFO with all talk of its relegation banished forever. Green can contend that despite Fifa’s sleazy reputation, the sponsors have paid it $1.5bn to be associated with its current tournament. So isn’t their conduct a pitch-perfect example of what Section 7 was brought in to criminalise?
There is only one problem with this stirring dressing-room talk. The offence is not one of two halves in that it only marks out those who associate with the briber. Not with the bribee or recipient of the kickback. Whatever happened in 2010 whereby Fifa awarded the 2022 tournament to Qatar, no one suggests that this tiny emirate was sent loads of slush from the Swiss Alps. It wasn’t bribed in order to showcase its premier league health and safety code. So an early SFO goal could lead to a fearful counter-attack culminating in the referee, Sir John Thomas, disallowing it and getting out another red card for the SFO’s investigators.
So insofar as this section is concerned, the sponsors can continue to pass the ball safely; but should they not just pick up the World Cup ball and form their own world series? Cut the Fifa stranglehold forever and end this cancer of corruption at the heart of the beautiful game.