A senior Asian Football Confederation (AFC) official has been provisionally suspended from all football-related activity for 90 days by FIFA following his guilty plea to giving and taking bribes in a New York court on Thursday.
Guam Football Association president Richard Lai is a former member of the AFC’s executive committee and still sits on the body’s marketing committee.
But there is arguably greater embarrassment for world football’s governing body, as Lai also sits on FIFA’s audit and compliance committee.
Lai’s ban, which comes into force immediately and can be extended by 45 days, was confirmed in a statement from FIFA’s ethics committee.
It said the decision “was taken upon the request of the chairman of the investigatory chamber, Dr Cornel Borbely” after Lai’s guilty plea to charges of wire fraud conspiracy was published by the United States Department of Justice.
The FIFA decision was preceded by a similar ruling from the Kuala Lumpur-based AFC, which said Lai has been “provisionally suspended from football with immediate effect under the AFC’s disciplinary and ethics code”.
Lai’s case is particularly significant as it represents the first time the US-led investigation into football-related corruption has extended beyond the Americas. It is also the DoJ’s first new guilty plea for a year, which suggests the inquiry, is not being wound down just yet, as some close observers have speculated.
But most important of all are the details of Lai’s case as they clearly implicate former FIFA vice-president and AFC president Mohamed Bin Hammam.
The Qatari was banned for life by FIFA in 2011 for allegedly trying to bribe members of the Caribbean Football Union to vote for him against incumbent Sepp Blatter in the upcoming FIFA presidential elections.
With Bin Hammam out of the frame, Blatter would eventually win a fourth term unopposed. The Qatari would overturn that life ban at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2012, only to receive another FIFA life ban for AFC-related corruption.
Lai pleaded guilty to receiving USD 100,000 (£77,000) from an individual the DoJ described as “an official of the AFC who was then running for the FIFA presidency” in exchange for his vote.
The DoJ statement continues by saying Lai also received over USD 850,000 (£658,000) between 2009 and 2014 from a ” faction of soccer officials in the AFC region” for his support.
Acting US attorney for the Eastern District of New York, William F. Sweeney Jr, said: “Today’s plea marks another important step in our ongoing effort to root out corruption in international soccer.
“The defendant abused the trust placed in him as a soccer official in order to line his own pockets, and now he will be held to account.
“The defendant’s breach of trust was particularly significant given his position as a member of the FIFA audit and compliance committee, which must play an important and independent role if corruption within FIFA is to be eliminated.”
In total, the US investigation has led to more than 40 football officials and businessmen being charged, with 21 now pleading guilty and paying huge fines. Lai, for example, agreed to forfeit USD 1.1million (£850,000).
News of Lai’s plea came on the same day French newspaper Le Monde reported that the French authorities have now joined their American, Australian, German and Swiss counterparts in investigating the bidding contests for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, won by Russia and Qatar respectively.
FIFA meets for its 67th Congress in Bahrain on May 11.