At the end of August 2017, Canadian lawyer and doping expert Richard McLaren was planning a two-day trip to Switzerland. On the agenda was a meeting at FIFA headquarters in Zurich, where he was also hoping to meet with María Claudia Rojas.
Since May 2017, the Colombian has been a kind of attorney general within the global football body. She is head of the Investigatory Chamber within FIFA’s Ethics Committee and her task is that of fighting the corruption that has befallen the association like a cancerous tumor. Included in that job is the collection of potentially incriminating material on FIFA functionaries who may have violated the FIFA Code of Ethics.
And that is exactly what McLaren was offering. Potentially incriminating material.
One of the people the meeting in Zurich was to address was Vitaly Mutko, a heavyweight in international sports policy. In the past, Mutko had served as the Russian minister of sport and as a member of the FIFA Executive Committee. A confidante of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mutko in summer 2017 was head of Russia’s 2018 World Cup Organizing Committee in addition to being president of the Russian Football Union.
In Zurich, McLaren had hoped to share key documents with FIFA chief investigator Rojas — documents that seemed to implicate Mutko as one of the ring-leaders behind a state-run doping system in Russia.
But shortly before the first confidential meeting in Switzerland, the FIFA investigator sent her regrets. “Ms. María Claudia Rojas is not available to travel to Zurich this week,” her secretariat wrote in an email sent to McLaren two days before. Instead, she sent three subordinate officers from her division.
This story is one of intrigue. It shows just how little interest FIFA has in exploring evidence of problems within the organization and in holding top functionaries responsible for them. These glimpses into the power center of global football have been made possible by the whistleblower platform Football Leaks, which has made millions of internal documents available to DER SPIEGEL. The newsmagazine has evaluated this trove of information together with the journalist network European Investigative Collaborations (EIC).
On one side of the story, the side characterized by a lack of investigative élan, is María Claudia Rojas. The South American judge was unexpectedly named chairwoman of the Investigatory Chamber of FIFA’s Ethics Committee in May 2017. It is thought that FIFA President Gianni Infantino was eager to have her, and she replaced the Swiss criminal lawyer Cornel Borbély, an expert in white collar crime. A critic of Infantino, Borbély had pursued his FIFA investigations vigorously, ultimately sweeping numerous corrupt officials out of the organization.
Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL
On the other side, the side characterized by a desire to expose potential problems, is Richard McLaren. As a special investigator for the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the lawyer spent more than half a year following the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi pursuing suspicions that the Russian government was operating a state-run sports doping program. Now, late in the summer of 2017, he was ready to take a closer look at the Russian football scene on behalf of FIFA.
The two investigative reports about Russia that McLaren had released the previous year rocked the sporting world. They described a state that was urging athletes to cheat and was doing all it could — including relying on the assistance of the country’s intelligence agencies — to cover up the transgressions.
McLaren and his team of investigators described a corrupt system in which Vitaly Mutko apparently played a leading role. In his reports for WADA, McLaren wrote that Mutko “directed, controlled and oversaw” the manipulation of positive doping tests in Russia. Including those of professional football players.
For FIFA, the situation involving Mutko, who rejected the allegations as nothing but a campaign by the West, was extremely sensitive given that the World Cup was set to take place in Russia the next year. But that is precisely why it should have been up to Rojas to explore the evidence, regardless of the name or rank of the person involved. Her position, after all, guaranteed her the necessary independence.
The Football Leaks documents show, however, that Rojas took the opposite tack. She resorted to tactical maneuvering, she stalled, and she equivocated.
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In her initial interactions with McLaren, Rojas gave the impression that she wanted to bring him on board as an external investigator, despite having cancelled her meeting with him. In truth, though, she spent the next several months giving the Canadian the runaround. In their negotiations over a contract to cement their cooperation, she dilly-dallied and played for time — until eventually, a frustrated and angry McLaren bailed out.
The spectacle began in mid-September 2017 with an email from Rojas to McLaren in which she wrote that she was interested in engaging him as a special investigator for FIFA’s Ethics Committee. She asked him to submit concrete proposals for what he thought such a cooperation should look like. McLaren answered that he and his investigative team would put together a package by the end of the month. He closed his message with the words: “Thank you for your interest in engaging us.”
McLaren sent his proposal to the Ethics Committee on September 29. But when he still hadn’t received a reply by October 10, he sent a follow-up: “It is more than a week since I filed with you a proposal,” he wrote, and inquired whether he should submit additional information or provide further assistance.
Again, no answer. Weeks passed.
On November 23, McLaren submitted a revised proposal for the investigation at the request of Rojas. He insisted on a number of steps that he considered non-negotiable. Among them were interviews with whistleblowers and witnesses in addition to a fresh analysis of the suspicious samples from the Russian laboratory.
Rojas rejected the proposal on November 28; his approach to the investigation was apparently too broad for her and her team. McLaren responded immediately, and he didn’t mince words. He wrote that he refused to tolerate any external interference in his investigative work. Simply analyzing his database on the state-controlled doping system in Russia — which contains “thousands of pieces” — was insufficient, he wrote to Rojas and her staff. A deeper investigation, including interviews with informants and witnesses, was indispensable, he insisted. “While I am prepared to discuss an appropriate mandate with you, I can advise that my revised proposal is what I consider to be an independent investigation,” McLaren wrote. “I cannot accept the strictures that are imposed upon me and my Team as contained in your 28 November letter to me.”
Rojas immediately backpedaled. On December 12, she gave McLaren the green light, with her office authoring a letter on her behalf. It carried the title: “Confidential — McLaren Independent Investigation Report.”
“After carefully reanalyzing it in light of your aforementioned explanations,” reads the message printed on the letterhead of the Ethics Committee’s Investigative Chamber, “Ms. María Claudia Rojas has agreed with your revised proposal.” The only thing left, the letter noted, was to draw up a contract — “the draft of which we will provide for your review shortly.”
But this, too, was nothing more than just another play for time. On December 20, McLaren wrote to Rojas to remind her that there was still no contractual basis for their cooperation. “Time is pressing on,” he wrote to Rojas’ secretariat. “It is going to be increasingly difficult to do this work if we do not start very soon,” he wrote, and indicated that he was concerned about important witnesses changing their mind about cooperating.
The New Football Leaks Revelations
McLaren was eager to contact the most important such witness: Grigory Rodchenkov, the former leader of the doping laboratories in Moscow and Sochi. Rodchenkov was one of the main conspirators inside the Russian doping program. But in 2015, he became fearful that his life might be in danger and fled to the U.S., where he revealed all he knew and became a public enemy in Russia. McLaren was one of very few people who had access to Rodchenkov via his legal representation.
Rojas’ office got in touch again ahead of the Christmas holidays. It was just a brief message from the secretariat informing McLaren that the draft contract would arrive in January 2018. There were no Christmas or New Year’s greetings. Just a short closing line: “Thank you for your kind understanding.” What could be more important to FIFA’s chief investigator than exposing systematic doping in Russia?
The year of the World Cup began, mid-January had arrived, and McLaren was still waiting for a message from Zurich. On Jan. 16, he once again contacted Rojas’ secretariat. He adopted a sarcastic tone: “I have not received any such draft to date. I am wondering if it might have gone astray.”
Again, Rojas did not reply personally, leaving the job to her secretary. And now, suddenly, everything had to move quickly. McLaren was asked if he had time for a telephone or video conference with the FIFA chief investigator. Because she is unable to speak English, she insisted that Spanish be the language of their negotiations, which meant that McLaren needed an interpreter. They agreed to talk on January 22 at 3:30 p.m. Zurich time.
After that conversation is when the undermining of McLaren began in earnest. Three days after the telephone conference, Rojas’ office wrote a letter in her name to Olivier Niggli, the director general of WADA. The global anti-doping agency, the letter noted, has “extensive experience in the fight against doping.” As such, the message asked, would it be possible for Niggli to recommend “three independent companies or persons specialized in doping-related investigations?”
ddp images, imago/Eibner, Benedikt Rugar/ DER SPIEGEL
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The letter was nothing less than an affront to McLaren. In recent years, there is nobody who has gained as much global renown in the fight against doping as the jurist from Ontario. He is considered around the world to be the top anti-doping investigator.
After this ambush, McLaren was no longer able to reach Rojas. “Can you please advise me what is going on,” he wrote to Rojas’ secretariat at the end of February. Again, the chief FIFA investigator did not answer the email personally.
Instead, she had her staff inform McLaren that she was not the correct contact person and that the Ethics Commission was not responsible for doping investigations at FIFA. That task fell to the FIFA Anti-Doping Unit. Furthermore, the correspondence read, “at no time” during the telephone conversation “had she indicated to McLaren that his proposal had been accepted.” Yet just a few weeks earlier, on December 12, she had sent written confirmation to the anti-doping investigator.
With that letter, Rojas’ strategy of obstruction had achieved the desired effect. She had prevented an independent investigation ahead of the World Cup in Russia that might have unearthed uncomfortable truths about the host country. And she had, after months of stalling, pushed off responsibility for the investigation, a core mandate of her office, to the Anti-Doping Unit, which takes its orders from FIFA. It cannot conduct independent investigations.
It was classic FIFA: Simulate a dedication to transparency while doing everything possible in the background to thwart it.
The law firm McKenzie Lake Lawyers can be found on the 18th floor of a building in the city of London, Ontario. On a cold and rainy October day, Richard McLaren received his guest from Germany in a sparsely furnished conference room, his fashion choices revealing a certain penchant for extravagance: light-blue pinstriped suit, pink tie and socks dotted with red maple leaves, the symbol of Canada.
McLaren is a self-assured 73-year-old. In the winter, he goes skiing with his son in the Rocky Mountains and enjoys vacationing in Europe in the summer, this year attending the Ryder Cup golf extravaganza in France. These days, the business lawyer works on projects that he finds attractive — and working with FIFA on an investigation into doping in Russia, he makes clear, is something he would have found extremely attractive. On that rainy day in October, though, he was given his first insight into the internal FIFA documents that illustrated Rojas’ stalling tactics and ultimate rejection of his services.
“Now I understand why there were such long periods of no communication from them to me,” McLaren says after examining the Football Leaks documents. “Something was going on behind the scenes that I wasn’t aware of.” One moment in particular has stuck in his memory: the telephone conference with Rojas on January 22. McLaren was on a ski vacation in Vail, Colorado and he had set his alarm clock so he could negotiate with the FIFA investigator at 7:30 a.m. It was their first direct interaction, and it would remain their last. “She spoke Spanish and the interpreter translated,” McLaren says. And still: “I don’t think it lasted more than 10 minutes.”
During the conversation, McLaren says, he made clear to her that they had already lost three important months. His initial plan had envisioned that the doping investigation would be completed by the end of March 2018, ahead of the beginning of the World Cup in June. Nevertheless, he says, Rojas reiterated over the phone that she was still eager to cooperate with him and that he would be receiving a contract soon.
And then, McLaren reads for the first time the email that Rojas sent to her secretariat in Zurich in late February 2018, in which she claims that “at no time” had she indicated to McLaren during the telephone conversation “that his proposal had been accepted.” The surprise in McLaren’s voice is difficult to ignore when he says: “She seems to engage in selective remembering.” He then says: “At the end of the day, when I look back now I think they never really wanted to conduct an investigation, and they didn’t.” His voice is filled with scorn.
Rojas did not provide a detailed response to questions submitted by the EIC about her interactions with the doping investigator McLaren. Instead, the FIFA press office sent a statement reading: “Given the level of investment that would have been needed to retain the services of Mr. McLaren … it was necessary to contact other potential service providers.” Ultimately, the statement continues, FIFA came to the conclusion that “no additional outsourced services were required.”
There exists a FIFA document that was revised and updated on Feb. 13, 2018. It contains preformulated answers to potentially uncomfortable questions about doping, Russia and the World Cup.
The message is clear: The FIFA Anti-Doping Unit has everything under control. It is “working in close collaboration” with WADA, which “has been informed of every step we have taken so far.” Yes, the document notes, “FIFA has conducted wide-ranging investigations.” And no, “there has not been any delay in our investigation. Since the very first moment, FIFA has undertaken comprehensive action to determine whether football players were involved.”
There were serious indications that not all was right with Russian football. That can be seen from an exchange of letters that can be found in the Football Leaks documents.
The Russian Football Union had sent FIFA a list containing the names of 11 professional players who played for clubs in Russia and were suspected of doping. What FIFA did not receive were the records pertaining to the doping tests in question. “Due to confidentiality,” the anti-doping laboratory in Moscow had unfortunately not released them, the general secretary of the Russian Football Union wrote in an accompanying letter to FIFA. Copies of the doping-control protocols could only be provided “after obtaining the written consent of the athletes.” Regrettably, “it is impossible to get the consents from the athletes now due to the fact that they are on vacation or are not residing on the territory of Russia.”
Infantino’s assistant had received the sensitive list shortly after New Year’s from the FIFA personnel director. “The names mentioned don’t mean that there is an anti-doping rule violation per se. This is under further investigation,” the FIFA official wrote.
On May 22, 2018, just three weeks before the beginning of the World Cup, FIFA released a press statement announcing that due to “insufficient evidence,” all investigations into Russian national team players for suspected doping had been closed.
FIFA did not provide the names of the players in question. Gianni Infantino, however, was aware of the list containing the 11 names, his assistant having informed him about it in early January. Two of those on the list were important starters on the host’s celebrated World Cup team: central defender Sergei Ignashevich and outside defender Mário Fernandes, both of whom are with CSKA Moscow.
When contacted, neither Fernandes nor Ignashevich chose to comment about the doping suspicions. The Russian anti-doping agency merely noted that it was obliged to maintain confidentiality. The Russian Football Union confirmed that it had sent FIFA a list of 11 names but said there had been no cause for suspensions in the cases of Ignashevich and Fernandes.
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