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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Withdrawal of bribery allegations fails to take Qatar and FIFA off the hook

FIFA’s ethics committee is scheduled to pronounce judgement on July 23 on bribery charges against Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam. (File photo)

FIFA’s ethics committee is scheduled to pronounce judgement on July 23 on bribery charges against Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam. (File photo)
This week’s withdrawal by a whistle blower of bribery allegations against Qatar relieves pressure on the Gulf state and world soccer body FIFA, but takes neither off the hook.

Phaedra Almajid’s statement that she fabricated allegations that Qatar had bribed three FIFA executive committee members to secure their votes for its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup leaves major questions unanswered.

The withdrawal effectively weakens the case against Qatar, but leaves unaddressed the need to reform FIFA’s bidding rules as well as multiple allegations of corruption or improper behavior of executive committee members that taken together amount to the worst crisis in the soccer body’s 107-year history. It also does not totally squash suspicions surrounding Qatar’s bid.
Ms. Almajid’s allegations that Qatar had paid $1.5 million each to FIFA executive committee members Issa Hayatou, Jacques Anouma and Amos Adamu fuelled calls by a British parliamentary committee and the German soccer association for an investigation into Qatar’s successful bid.

The allegations came after FIFA last year banned Mr. Adamu and Reynald Temarii following a report in the British newspaper The Sunday Times that they had offered to sell their votes to undercover reporters posing as lobbyists for an American consortium. All in all 10 of FIFA’s 24 executive committee members have been tainted by corruption allegations in the last nine months.

FIFA’s ethics committee is scheduled to pronounce judgement on July 23 on bribery charges against Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohamed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national. The verdict will be issued a day before an AFC executive committee that is likely to further seal Mr. Bin Hammam’s fate.

Mr. Bin Hammam is likely to be judged guilty of attempting in collusion with then FIFA vice president and head of soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean, Jack Warner, to have bribed officials of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) to secure their votes for the Qatari’s campaign to defeat Sepp Blatter in last month’s FIFA presidential elections.

Mr. Blatter won unchallenged a fourth term as president after Mr. Bin Hammam withdrew his candidacy hours before he and Mr. Warner were suspended by FIFA pending the outcome of an investigation. Mr. Warner has since then resigned from his soccer positions in a successful bid to stave off further investigation.

The likely conviction of Mr. Bin Hammam, who was closely associated with Qatar’s bid, is certain to cast a continued shadow over the integrity of the Gulf state’s well-funded campaign and leave suspicions lingering in the minds of many. It also highlights the need to reform not only FIFA’s bidding rules but also the soccer body as a whole.

The secretary general of Qatar’s Supreme Committee For The 2022 World Cup, Hassan al Thawadi, reiterated Qatari denials of any wrongdoing in an interview with the BBC. He dismissed the accusations as “unsubstantiated allegations,” “prejudice” and “taking things out of context.” Mr. Thawadi insisted that “we never broke any rules in response to a question over whether the Gulf state had paid money or gifts to secure the 2022 tournament.”

The allegations against Qatar and the questions about the FIFA rules were fuelled when in May Mr. Warner leaked an email written by FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke in which he equated the bribery charges against Mr. Bin Hammam to the way Qatar had “bought” the hosting of the World Cup finals. Mr. Bin Hammam “thought you can buy FIFA as they bought the World Cup,” Mr. Valcke wrote.

Mr. Valcke subsequently insisted he was referring to Qatar’s massive bid budget rather than accusing the country of any unethical behaviour or wrongdoing.

Qatar’s bid campaign budget – estimates range from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars – was significantly higher than that of its competitors, Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

Qatar is believed despite Ms. Almajid’s admission that she forged internal documents of the bid committee in her attempt to get even for being removed from her job to have invested in soccer infrastructure in the home countries of FIFA executive committee members whose votes it wanted to secure.

While those investments, if they occurred, would not violate FIFA’s bidding guidelines, they do raise questions about the integrity of the process. Ms. Almajid’s admission strengthens Mr. Blatter’s refusal to investigate the Qatari bid and fundamentally address the ethical issues it raises about the bidding process.

FIFA, moreover, by Mr. Blatter’s own admission has allowed the bidding for the 2022 tournament as well as the 2018 World Cup, both of which were awarded at a December 2, 2010, executive committee member to be flawed. Mr. Blatter conceded on various occasions this year that Qatar had colluded with Spain and Portugal, whose joint bid for 2018 lost out to Russia, to swap their votes despite a FIFA investigation that last year concluded that there was no evidence for the alleged swap.

The lack of real will within FIFA to tackle what appears to be a permissive atmosphere that has seriously tainted the organization’s image and raises serious questions about its commitment to transparency and accountability is reflected in the fact that Mr. Blatter’s unashamed downplaying of the swap, a violation of FIFA rules, was a minor issue because it had not produced results. Equally unchallenged is Mr. Blatter’s admission that FIFA’s investigation of the swap was effectively a farce.

Mr. Blatter and Qatar may feel vindicated by Ms. Almajid’s withdrawal of her damaging allegations. That however does not alleviate the need to radically change the way FIFA does business.

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