Senior executives at FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, are giving serious consideration to leaving Switzerland, the organization’s home for nearly 90 years and where in 2015 some of its most senior officials were arrested in connection with a major corruption scandal.
Under Gianni Infantino, a Swiss administrator who was elected as president in 2016 after the fall of FIFA’s longtime leader Sepp Blatter, FIFA has tried to move away from its past. Top leaders have been purged and efforts have been made to reform the organization and its decision-making processes, with varying degrees of success.
But after he was re-elected to a second term as president in June, Infantino tasked his top lieutenants with studying the viability of FIFA’s leaving its glass-and-steel headquarters in Zurich. The discussion, which is still in its early stages, is driven by many factors, but two primary reasons are difficulties in hiring staff members from outside Europe and an acceptance that continuing to base its operations in a country with a reputation for corporate secrecy might not align with the goals of an organization trying to win back the public trust.
While FIFA has not made any public statements on the discussions, or the motivations behind them, two people familiar with the organization’s plans told The New York Times that the organization is studying options for leaving Zurich. The plans could include leaving Zurich entirely or a partial relocation of operations, which could see FIFA open subsidiary offices in different parts of the world to give it better access to, and oversight of, its 211 member associations. Officials also have not ruled out maintaining the status quo, with all global operations handled from its current office.
The discussions with potential host countries and cities could be similar to those held by international corporations like Amazon, and just as in those competitions, a final decision most likely would depend both on practical concerns but also on what concessions FIFA can win.
FIFA was established in Paris in 1904 but moved to Zurich in 1932 because of Switzerland’s location in the center of Europe, its political neutrality and because “it was accessible by train,” according to a timeline on FIFA’s website. In 2007, FIFA moved into its headquarters building on a hill overlooking Zurich, built at a cost of more than $200 million. The building, known as FIFA House, has several subterranean levels, including the marble-floored, soundproof room where its governing council holds its meetings.
Among the possibilities under consideration is a return to Paris, according to one of the people familiar with FIFA’s thinking. But other locations are also under consideration with a number of factors expected to factor in any outcome, including proximity to a major international airport; what tax and visa status FIFA would be granted; and how local employment laws would affect FIFA employees and visitors. In recent years, FIFA officials have complained that Swiss law has made it difficult to recruit from overseas.
For Switzerland, which over decades has grown into the location of choice for international sporting federations, the departure of FIFA would represent a major loss, even with the organization’s recent embarrassing scandals. Switzerland has long boasted of its ability to attract major sports organizations — Lausanne, the home of the International Olympic Committee, actively recruits such organizations and has labeled itself “the Silicon Valley of sports” — and highly paid employees provide a boost to the local economy.
Along with FIFA and the I.O.C., dozens of other regional and international sports bodies, both large and small, call Switzerland home. Their world here has been largely independent: they are lightly taxed, and for years they were exempt from Swiss anticorruption laws. The country even has its own arbitration court, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is based in a chateau in Lausanne.
Sports organizations bring more than a billion dollars to Switzerland annually, according to a six-year study published in 2015.
“For a long time, we didn’t have to do anything to attract them,” Sabrina Attias, the city official charged with luring sports bodies to Lausanne, said in an interview with The New York Times in 2016. “Then we realized the opportunities and decided to be proactive.”
Leaving Switzerland also may come as a relief to Infantino, who has found himself under siege in the Swiss news media recently over private meetings he held in 2016 with the country’s attorney general, Michael Lauber. Revelations of the meetings led to the removal of Lauber from oversight of a Swiss investigation into corruption at FIFA that began in 2015 and has yet to result in any trials, much less a conviction.
The failure of the Swiss authorities to act in the corruption case has frustrated elements in FIFA’s current leadership, who have privately expressed incredulity at the inaction given the amount of evidence obtained in raids on FIFA’s headquarters.
Officials said they would not rush to make a decision on a possible move, though they acknowledged they did not feel any need to remain in Switzerland.