FIFA files criminal complaint against Blatter over museum

FIFA has filed a criminal complaint against former president Sepp Blatter over the finances of its loss-making football museum in Zurich.

FIFA said on Tuesday it suspected “criminal mismanagement by FIFA’s former management and companies appointed by them” to work on the museum — long seen as a pet project of Blatter’s — in a renovated and rented city centre building.

The FIFA World Football Museum opened in 2016 after $140 million of FIFA’s money was spent refurbishing the 1970s office building to also include 34 rental apartments.

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It was intended to open around May 2015, when Blatter won a fifth presidential election, but was delayed until after he left office under pressure from American and Swiss investigations of international football officials.

Blatter committed FIFA to a rental contract with the building’s owner, insurance firm Swiss Life, that requires paying $360m through 2045 at above market rates, football’s world body said.

FIFA said its criminal complaint was delivered by hand to state prosecutors in Zurich.

“That audit revealed a wide range of suspicious circumstances and management failures, some of which may be criminal in nature and which therefore need to be properly investigated by the relevant authorities,” FIFA deputy secretary general for administration Alasdair Bell said in a statement.

The Zurich prosecution office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The allegations are baseless and are vehemently denied,” Blatter’s lawyer Lorenz Erni said in a statement.

Blatter risks investigation at local level while already a suspect in two criminal proceedings opened by federal prosecutors into how he spent FIFA’s money as president.

Those investigations involve FIFA paying $2m to former UEFA president Michel Platini in 2011 and $1m to the Trinidad and Tobago football body — effectively to disgraced former FIFA vice president Jack Warner — weeks before the Caribbean islands’ general election in 2010.

“Given the massive costs associated with this museum, as well as the general way of working of the previous FIFA management, a forensic audit was conducted in order to find out what really happened here,” Bell said.

The museum has made a loss each year including $50m in 2016 that included one-off costs, FIFA said at the time in its financial report.

The most recent FIFA accounts for 2019 show almost $3.5m revenue from the FIFA World Football Museum and $6.3m costs for “investment and expenses.” There was a record 161,700 visitors at the Zurich building last year.

In the 2018 accounts, museum revenue was almost $4m against $12m in spending.

The FIFA museum was identified closely with Blatter from the time it was announced in April 2012.

His executive committee had already approved $203m for what was being called “Project Libero,” and forecast to attract 300,000 visitors each year.

“It is high time that world football had a meeting place for its millions of fans,” Blatter said then of a museum originally to be built underground next to FIFA’s headquarters on a wooded hillside above the city.

One year later, the museum plan changed to a FIFA-funded renovation of a modernist building owned by Swiss Life.

FIFA said in a 2013 news release it signed a 40-year rental of “Haus zur Enge.” The museum would “occupy the second basement level through to the first floor” with office space and apartments on the upper levels.

“The FIFA museum project is a stroke of luck for Zurich and is a perfect fit for Swiss Life’s investment policy,” the insurance firm’s chairman Rolf Dorig said in the FIFA statement.

When the museum formally opened on Feb. 28, 2016 it was a first public duty for the new FIFA president Gianni Infantino who had been elected two days earlier.

Blatter did not attend the ceremony and had begun serving a ban from footall by FIFA’s ethics committee after Swiss authorities revealed the Platini payment in September, 2015. The ban expires in October 2021 when Blatter will be 85.

FIFA said on Tuesday its files on the museum project will be sent to ethics investigators.

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