How Swiss politeness contributed to the Fifa crisis

Fifa sign Image copyright AFP

The crisis that has engulfed football's governing body, Fifa, has largely focused on Zurich where the organisation has its headquarters. This is not the first financial scandal to hit Switzerland - so what is it with this country and money?

Once again the Swiss are opening their morning papers, and choking over their muesli to financial scandal, once again about an institution based in Switzerland, and its leader, who is Swiss.

This week it's Fifa and bribery, rewind a year or so and it was Swiss bankers helping American clients dodge taxes, their creative ways to transfer wealth into secret accounts even included smuggling diamonds in a tube of toothpaste.

Before that there were the dictators, Mobutu, Marcos, Milosevic - where did they put money for safe and discreet keeping? Switzerland of course.

"Switzerland has so much more to offer than that," is a phrase I've heard again and again. When I told friends I had spent much of last week camped outside Fifa's Zurich headquarters, the reaction was a chorus of, "Oh, that Blatter! Why, why doesn't he go?" When he did resign you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief. Many Swiss are heartily sick of seeing their country famous not for cheese or chocolate, but for looking after corrupt money, or for turning a blind eye while it changes hands.

Image copyright Thinkstock

The Swiss worry about their image, but all images arise from some basic truths. "If you want to understand their attitude to money you have to go back centuries," one young student reminded me. "The Swiss were Europe's mercenaries, they fought for whoever paid, never mind the cause. And if they discovered the other side paid more, they switched camps overnight."

And then there is that often misunderstood concept: banking secrecy. It arose originally not out of a desire to attract corrupt money, but out of a very Swiss conviction that the state should not interfere in an individual's financial affairs, and that citizens can be trusted.

So it's not considered polite to ask someone what they earn here - that is a private matter. Everyone pays their own taxes, nothing is deducted at source. Every year we all groan at the bureaucracy, but everyone I know does do it.

Add the long tradition of hundreds of little sporting associations, from ski clubs to hiking groups. Every village has them, newcomers are expected to join.

But the laws governing them are astonishingly lax, and until very recently the same laws applied to institutions like Fifa, whose current bank balance by the way is $1.4bn (£915m). No meaningful oversight, no requirement for transparent book keeping, and a good few tax breaks.

Put all that tradition in a pot, the mercenaries, the banking secrecy, and the village club laws, mix for a couple of centuries, and what do you get? An opportunistic financial sector which has made billions for Switzerland, partly through attracting the cash of despots, drug barons and tax dodgers, and a cosy home for bloated multi-million-dollar businesses masquerading as not-for-profit sporting associations.

And, in the figure of Sepp Blatter, a man brought up in a small Swiss village where it wasn't considered polite to discuss money.

Image copyright AFP

Bit by bit though, the Swiss are making changes. Almost unnoticed, they have introduced some of the world's strictest money laundering laws. Financial crime is being prosecuted, not ignored. When Swiss police raided Fifa headquarters last week, there were, I'm told "white faces and shaking hands" among the football officials. "They know it's serious this time," said one source.

The discretion which once allowed suitcases full of cash to be handed over at Swiss banks, no questions asked, now amounts to a white sheet held in front of the cameras as top Fifa officials are led from their five-star Zurich hotel to a Swiss prison.

No cosy house arrest for them - they are, I hear, in the most basic of detention centres, required to clean their own small cells, and participate in a bit of cardboard box making. "They're unhappy about it of course," someone who knows told me with a quiet grin, "but, well, these cases can take years."

Old habits die hard though - it's still a Swiss habit not to talk about money, it's still the rest of the world's habit to put Switzerland, corruption, and money in the same sentence. So that image most Swiss say they care about so much still needs a good deal of polishing.

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