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Opinion | Did Russia Steal the World Cup?

Opinion | Did Russia Steal the World Cup?

The F.B.I. didn’t much care whether England got the tournament, of course, but the agent, who supervised the F.B.I.’s Eurasian Organized Crime squad, had been looking for opportunities to chase down conspiracies emanating from Russia. After breaking the back of the Russian mob in New York, the squad had set its sights on border-crossing financial crimes involving oligarchs and mafia kingpins. Mr. Steele’s intelligence about Russian attempts to corrupt FIFA seemed to check all the boxes.

Thus began one of the largest and most ambitious investigations of international graft and money laundering in American history, one that would expose decades of deep-seated rot and corruption in global soccer. Over five years, a team of I.R.S. and F.B.I. agents, working under the direction of several ambitious young prosecutors, secretly dug into international soccer’s darkest corners, flipping officials and mining millions of financial records to build a convincing case that the beautiful game had become little more than a source of vast profits for an international organized crime syndicate.

The investigation finally broke into public view on May 27, 2015, with the sensational early morning arrests of seven soccer officials in Zurich. The world’s most popular game was shaken to its core: Multiple generations of FIFA administrators were brought down, accused of collectively taking hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes. In a matter of days, FIFA’s once -untouchable president, Mr. Blatter, announced that he would resign, and soon he was under criminal investigation as well. (Mr. Blatter was not among those indicted but he was ultimately banned from all soccer-related activities for six years.) To date, more than two dozen people and entities have been convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering in the case, which continues.

The Department of Justice managed to do something that few if any of the sport’s billions of fans had ever believed possible: FIFA, nested high above Zurich and, its officials thought, beyond any kind of regulation or government interference, had finally been held accountable.

The investigation also forged a strong bond of trust between Mr. Steele and American law enforcement, one that led the former British spy, in July 2016, to hand the same F.B.I. agent a secret dossier he had assembled alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to interfere in the American presidential elections, among other even more lurid claims.

By nearly every measure, the FIFA case had been a tremendous success, showcasing brilliant, ambitious police work while underscoring the international leadership role of American rule of law. Investigators in a half-dozen other countries, chastened by what the United States had done to the world’s game, saw little choice but to open their own FIFA investigations.

But there is one glaring hole in what even the vanquished defense attorneys who had corrupt soccer officials as clients called a breathtakingly meticulous and exhaustive federal investigation and prosecution: any mention of Russia. Court records from the case run into the thousands of pages, and prosecutors spent weeks laying out every tangled intricacy of their digging in a six-week criminal trial in federal court in Brooklyn late last year. But Russia, strangely, seems to have been completely absent from any of it.

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