When checking into their rooms at the Grand Hyatt in São Paulo, Brazil, just before last year’s World Cup, world football officials were greeted with leather gift bags from the federation of country football. Each bag contained tourist books, a key ring, a Brazilian jersey and, in a small velvet pouch, a wristwatch valued at $ 26,000.
Some realized that the watch, from Swiss brand Parmigiani, was more than a trinket and handed it over to FIFA, the world’s governing body for sport. But many officials accepted the watch, establishing it as a symbol of the generosity enjoyed by football leaders.
Less than a year later, FIFA was brought to its knees when US prosecutors exposed bribery and bribery charges against 10 football officials from nine countries. Among them, the president of the Brazilian federation which distributed the watches last year, José Maria Marin.
Now, in one of many efforts to restore its reputation, FIFA is trying to purge the infamy of Parmigiani watches. On Thursday, more than a year after the Brazilian federation said it had distributed 65, FIFA announced that it had collected 48 of the luxury accessories and donated them to charity.
The donation, valued at around $ 1.2 million, was made to the Street Football World charity, FIFA said. In the coming days, the watches are expected to arrive in Berlin, where the charity is headquartered, its founder said, and the proceeds from their eventual sale will be invested in football programs for disadvantaged youth in Brazil.
Most of the officials who received the watches in the summer of 2014 said they did not know their value. “Who has ever heard of Parmigiani? Michel D’Hooghe, honorary president of the Royal Belgian Football Association and member of the FIFA executive committee, said in an interview this week. “To me it looked like something you put on spaghetti.”
Mr D’Hooghe gave the watch to a friend in remembrance of the tournament, he said. He didn’t think about it until the rumor soon spread that the gifts were, in fact, expensive; FIFA had learned them and wanted the officials to give them to them.
In September 2014, the FIFA ethics committee announced that it would not penalize football officials who complied with its request by the end of next month. Some people, like the head of the England Football Association, Greg Dyke, publicly defied the deadline and only returned the watches at the start of this year, but escaped sanctions, according to FIFA.
As the United States and Switzerland now pursue independent investigations into other possible corruption in sport, FIFA has sought to show it is serious in eradicating unethical and illegal behavior. The organization’s announcement Thursday reported that its ethics committee had invested time in collecting props – some of them were not in the possession of officials to whom they were first given – and that FIFA wanted to trumpet this prolonged effort.
After initially claiming to have distributed 65 watches, the Brazilian football federation provided FIFA with the names of 57 people who had received gifts, according to Andreas Bantel, spokesperson for the investigative chamber of the ethics committee of the FIFA. It is not known exactly how many watches were distributed, but FIFA has focused on the named individuals.
“We did a very careful and intensive research on these people to recover 48 of the 57,” Bantel said.
FIFA has not identified the nine people who did not return the watches, but one of them is charged in the United States case, Bantel said. The official took the Parmigiani watch to Zurich in May, intending to return it, but was arrested during a morning raid on his hotel before he could act on it.
The other eight officials told FIFA ethics investigators that they had never received the watches or that they had been irretrievably lost, for example in an international transit out of Brazil.
In Thursday’s announcement, investigators from the FIFA ethics committee said they considered the case closed.
Jeffrey Webb, a former FIFA executive committee member who was among the men recently indicted by the United States, received one of the gifts. To be on the safe side last summer, Mr. Webb rolled out 11 luxury watches, including three Rolexes. But a Parmigiani watch was not one of them.
Mr. Marin of Brazil was extradited to the United States from Switzerland this month. He has pleaded not guilty, posted $ 15 million bail – none funded by luxury accessories – and is under house arrest in a Trump Tower apartment in Manhattan.
It will be Street Football World’s responsibility to sell the 48 watches and recover their monetary value, FIFA said Thursday.
Jürgen Griesbeck, founder and CEO of the charity, said in an interview that the organization is considering many platforms, from eBay to auction houses, to sell the merchandise. He didn’t know exactly how much money the goods could make. “It is very difficult to make concrete plans until we know the final amount,” he said, “but we will be very open and transparent about what we are doing.”
The charity had reservations about accepting the contaminated merchandise, Griesbeck said, but ultimately decided to help reinvest the money into grassroots football in Brazil, where the larger mission of the organization consists of helping young people at risk to find work.
Street Football World was not the first to be offered watches, nor the only one in its initial ambivalence; the Brazilian football federation from which the watches came refused the possibility of taking them back. The federation did not respond to a request for comment.
The Brazilian federation acquired the timepieces directly from Parmigiani, she told FIFA last year, for $ 8,750 each, or one-third of their market value, according to an appraisal commissioned by FIFA; the watchmaker is a partner of the federation. It sells a co-branded line, Pershing CBF – for Confederação Brasileira de Futebol – which incorporates details of the Brazilian flag on the watch faces.
For Mr. D’Hooghe, FIFA’s request last year meant the cancellation of a souvenir he had passed on as a gift. “It was not very honorable for me,” he said, “to ask a friend to return the gift I had given him.
More than that, Mr. D’Hooghe said, he objected to the “toxic” gift being thrown at him without suspicion by the Brazilian federation. He said he had no opportunity to receive or reject him as he was left in his hotel room.
Some of the first to voluntarily hand over the watches before FIFA publicly asks for them include Moya Dodd, an Australian football official who spoke out on increasing the number of women in FIFA as a way to fight corruption; Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, who has just launched his second candidacy for the FIFA presidency; and Sunil Gulati, president of the American Football Federation and member of the FIFA executive committee. All three declined to comment on Thursday’s news.
The watches have a close identity both with world football and with FIFA, which is headquartered in Switzerland, a major producer of them. Hublot manufactured the six oversized watches which are hung in the lobby of the FIFA headquarters in Zurich and which mark different time zones; it is also the official timekeeper and watch for the World Cup.
For Parmigiani – previously mistaken for a cheese by some like Mr D’Hooghe – the connection to the FIFA scandal has been positive, the brand said.
In the wake of the scandal, a spokeswoman said in an email this week, traffic to the watchmaker’s website tripled last year, breaking records.
“Everyone knows Rolex, Omega, Cartier,” Mr. D’Hooghe said. “But Parmigiani? “