The Qatari president of one of Europe's most glamorous soccer clubs, Paris Saint-Germain, is under investigation by Swiss prosecutors for suspected bribery of a top FIFA executive to get World Cup broadcasting rights.
Criminal proceedings against Nasser Al-Khelaifi, PSG president and CEO of Qatar-owned BeIN Media Group, former FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke, and an unnamed "businessman in the sports rights sector" was announced by the office of Switzerland's attorney general on Thursday.
The case involves the award of broadcast rights for the next four World Cups from 2018 through 2030.
The proceeding against Al-Khelaifi is one of the first direct links to Qatar in sweeping investigations by federal law enforcement authorities in Switzerland, the United States, and France of FIFA, international soccer, and the 2018-2022 World Cup bidding contests.
The Paris offices of BeIN Sports were searched by two magistrates from the French financial prosecutor's office, the federal agency said. They were assisted by investigators from an anti-corruption unit.
Properties were also searched in Greece, Italy, and Spain while Valcke was questioned in Switzerland, the Swiss federal prosecution office said. It cited cooperation from a European Union criminal investigation agency.
"Multiple premises were searched, assets were seized and interviews were conducted as a result of this joint operation," the EU body known as Eurojust said in a statement.
Valcke did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
PSG declined to comment.
Investigation dates back to 2014
No suspect was detained on Thursday, said Swiss prosecutors whose work investigating FIFA and suspected money laundering linked to World Cup hosting bids began in November 2014.
Then, FIFA gave the Swiss federal office a report and evidence from its then-ethics prosecutor — former U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia — into the dual World Cup bidding contest won by Russia and Qatar.
Al-Khelaifi is alleged to have offered "undue advantages" to Valcke — FIFA's CEO-like secretary general from 2007 until his firing in January 2016 — for the award of media rights in "certain countries" for the 2026 and 2030 World Cup.
Al-Khelaifi and Valcke previously worked on a deal for the 2018 and 2022 rights weeks after Qatar won the 2022 hosting vote. In January 2011, FIFA announced that Al Jazeera Sports — which later became BeIN — secured the rights for 23 territories across the Middle East and North Africa, including Saudi Arabia.
FIFA has never announced if BeIN also secured any 2026 and 2030 World Cup rights.
Former FIFA exec received 'undue advantages'
Swiss prosecutors also allege Valcke received "undue advantages" from a businessman who was not identified to award certain media rights for four World Cups from 2018 through 2030.
The criminal proceeding was opened on March 20, but announced only on Thursday, the Swiss federal office said.
Al-Khelaifi's profile has risen in recent weeks as PSG pursued and sealed a world record transfer of Brazil star Neymar from Barcelona for $260 million US as it targeted a first Champions League title.
After PSG's offseason spree signed off by Al-Khelaifi, European soccer body UEFA opened its own case into possible violation of soccer-specific rules designed to curb excessive spending by clubs on transfer fees and wages.
Since FIFA's much-discredited executive committee picked Russia and Qatar in December 2010, the gas-rich emirate has bought up PSG with sovereign wealth and installed Al-Khelaifi as president. BeIN has also acquired a broad portfolio of rights including from UEFA for the Champions League and national team matches.
Al-Khelaifi's rising status in European soccer has seen him earn a seat on UEFA's strategy panel as a delegate of top clubs.
UEFA also declined to comment Thursday.
The latest case stemming from the wider investigation of FIFA's business also saw criminal proceedings opened against Valcke in March 2016.
FIFA 'fully supports investigation'
Valcke was the right-hand man to then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter for more than eight years until a swathe of senior executives at soccer's world body was removed from office in fallout from a U.S. Department of Justice indictment revealed in May 2015.
Valcke, a French former TV presenter, was in Switzerland on Wednesday to testify at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in his appeal hearing against a 10-year ban by FIFA for financial wrongdoing and abuse of expenses.
FIFA said on Thursday it "fully supports the investigation" by Swiss and other authorities.
"FIFA has constituted itself as a damaged party in this investigation," the Zurich-based organization said.
FIFA is seeking a share of more than $200 million held by the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) which secured forfeits from soccer and marketing officials in its ongoing investigation. The DoJ has indicted or secured guilty pleas from more than 40 people.
In the three-year Swiss investigation of international soccer, prosecutors said Thursday they have details of 180 suspicious transactions through banks in the country and opened "around 25" criminal proceedings.