Football corruption and the remarkable road to Qatar’s World Cup

Football corruption and the remarkable road to Qatar’s World Cup

8 Oct 2022 (The Guardian)

With the surrounding noise on human rights, worker deaths, image laundering and the rest, it is easy to forget what Qatar 2022 is really all about, the founding message at the very heart of this global festival of football. Which is, of course, corruption.

Committee members living high on someone else’s hog. Development money that never developed. The fat, wet handshake wrapped up in a TV rights deal. It is time, six weeks away from Fifa’s winter World Cup, to consider the base note of this thing.

An important disclaimer is required at this point. There is no chain of evidence linking Qatar itself to any kind of corruption in securing its World Cup bid success. Qatar’s supreme delivery committee has always strongly denied any such involvement. And rightly so. A two-year inquiry by Fifa’s ethics committee found no significant concerns.

In fact both Qatar and Russia could reasonably claim to have been unfortunate, assailed on all sides by other people’s corruption, and forced to operate within this nexus of bad optics and sour grapes. Even if, by happy coincidence, the decisions made within that environment have also happened to align with both their interests.

Either way Qatar 2022 remains an event tainted at its outset by a great gushing spume of individual corruption among Fifa’s executive committee and decisive actors outside the voting room; almost all of whom were physically present at the moment of delivery on 2 December 2010 in the Messe hall at Fifa House, Zurich, arguably the single most significant day in the history of modern football, and an occasion future historians will surely mine for colour detail while fleshing out their study of the carbon wars of the early 21st century.

There is still a sense of double‑take about that extraordinary tableau, with its cast of rainmakers, nabobs and grifters. Fifa’s head office is strangely unrepentant in its aesthetic. What kind of organisation actively chooses matt black walls and tinted glass, a bug-proof basement boardroom, the unshakable sense of being, above all a lair?

On Bid Decision Day the whole building was gripped with a sense of event glamour, buzzing with rumour and counter-rumour, talk of votes cast and promises made. The announcement deadline slipped glamorously. Eventually the world’s media found themselves gathered in a zombie-horde crush, vetted and ticketed, ready to swarm into the remaining seats in the glamour‑studded auditorium.

From the start, stuff was happening in there. The first shiver of English unease came with the sight of David Beckham up near the front shrugging and looking sad.

Ironically so, some might say, given Beckham’s own subsequent deep personal interest in the success of Gulf-region football: his Saudi tie-in, his one-man relaunch as a multimillion-dollar ambassador for Qatar itself (every man has his price. Beckham is at least pretty specific about his).

There was the extraordinary sight of Sepp Blatter on stage, a gleaming golden super-smooth statuette of a man, pawing and stroking and fondling the trophy itself, seeming to know even in that moment that this was also a kind of goodbye.

And around the room it was a case of here-comes-everyone. Here is Bill Clinton looking politely baffled. Here is Roman Abramovich, not the kind of person to enter an envelope-opening competition when there’s a chance the contents might come as a surprise. Here are Morgan Freeman, Seb Coe and Elle Macpherson. Here is Chuck Blazer, the mobility scooter Pimpernel.

Post-announcement, Boris Johnson could be seen mooching about muttering sadly about deals behind the deals. Most striking was the appearance of Vladimir Putin, strolling out all alone into the centre of the stage, there to preen and shrug and drawl his answers to the gathered sports press. Putin had previously said he would not attend “so that they can make a decision without any pressure from the outside”, presumably an example of his famously sly sense of humour.

What actually happened here? The basic outline is startling enough. In the years since, 16 of 22 voting exco members present in that hall have been implicated in or investigated over some form of alleged corruption or bad practice.

The most significant event was the 2015 arrests in Switzerland and subsequent investigation. The FBI produced a 47-count indictment against assorted footballing figures. Julio Grondona, 26 years a Fifa executive, died in 2014 and has been safely loaded with blame by his old pals. Jack Warner, 79 years old and still going about his business in Trinidad, remains the key suspect for the US Department of Justice.

Brazilian investigators ran Ricardo Teixeira to ground, but never found the string to unravel the rest of it. The Garcia report provided eye-popping detail, not least around the English bid team and its dealings with Warner.

Other developments have arrived outside of this, through leaks, media digging and opaque Fifa investigations. With a lot of this there is a sense of clearing house, Fifa using the misdeeds of the past to weed its own executive. At times it feels like piecing together the world’s most corrupt jigsaw puzzle, but always missing the central segment.

And in the end it is hard not to come back to that room. Ultimately the chief players behind this double World Cup bid spectacular were Blatter, Michel Platini, Vitali Mutko, Russia’s bid supremo, Mohammed bin Hammam, the Qatari president of the Asian Football Confederation, Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, and Putin.

Fast forward to the current timeline and Blatter, Platini and Bin Hammam have been banned from football. Sarkozy has a criminal conviction for dubious election practice. Mutko has been implicated in a state-sponsored doping scandal. Putin is waging a land war in Europe.

And yet none of this has ever really touched Qatar, which remains essentially blameless, a spectator to the arraignment of others. There have been some spectacular accusations towards connected persons.

In 2011 the Sunday Times printed a story alleging that Bin Hammam had made payments to football power brokers totalling $5m via 10 slush funds.

Bin Hammam, it was said, hosted backslapping junkets where cash was handed out. He allegedly paid $1.6m into a bank account controlled by Warner, half of it before the vote for the World Cup. He allegedly paid the Somali Football Federation $100,000 through his daughter’s bank account. And why not though, eh? Bin Hammam has been banned for life from football, then unbanned, then rebanned. He’s seen as a hero in Doha. He’s 73 years old. He’s not talking to anyone any time soon.

In 2019 there were allegations Fifa had benefited from a $400m rights deal with Al Jazeera, Qatar’s state TV station, offered just 21 days before the bid decision, with an extra $100m top-up should Qatar succeed. Fifa denies this was material to any decision made. The Garcia report revealed that Sandro Rosell, who had connected dealings with Qatar, had made a payment of €1.45m to the bank account of Teixeira’s then 10-year‑old daughter. Rosell had previously sent an email to his Qatari contact promising: “This means I’ll be able to invest this money for my interest, that I hope, finally, will be yours.” What does that mean? Does it mean anything?

There was mention of lucrative friendly fixtures, of Qatari gas deals, of projects funded, of Michel D’Hooghe, Belgian exco member, being “compromised” by the offer of a job for his son at Qatar’s Aspire Academy.

Plus there is the other major set piece of that bid period, the lunch at the Élysée Palace in November 2010 when Sarkozy, France’s president, hosted Platini and the emir of Qatar. Platini switched his vote to Qatar around this time. He denies the two events were connected. The emir’s government would later buy out Paris Saint-Germain, increase its stake in a French media group and buy up the rights to French football. France has enjoyed productive commercial relations with Qatar ever since. Everybody present denies there is any connection.

At the end of which there is a feeling that all we really have is the echo of something, the froth at the fringes. For all the trauma, the cost, the heat in that room in Zurich, the cutting loose of a generation of leathery old grandees has failed to derail the machine at its centre.

Gianni Infantino was being investigated by the Swiss authorities over possible criminal misconduct, although this process seems to have stalled and gone cold. He lives in Qatar now, closer to the real business at hand. For the Game, For The World, as the governing body’s own motto states. Fifa will end up with the usual $3bn World Cup profit.

Qatar will get to stage its spectacular, to present a face to the global cameras. As ever, it is only the players that change.