By James M. Dorsey
A series of investigations into the dealings of world soccer body FIFA, including the awarding of World Cup hosting rights, and court proceedings related to the banning for life of suspended Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Mohammed Bin Hammam, are likely to revive debate about Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 tournament.
In a sign that Qatar is coming under increased scrutiny, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is looking into allegations of misconduct in the awarding a year ago of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar.
FBI investigators last month interviewed in London officials of England’s 2018 bid campaign, according to The Daily Telegraph. The paper reported that the FBI had collected “substantial evidence” documenting efforts to hack into emails of US bid executive, who alongside their colleagues from South Korea, Australia and Japan lost to Qatar.
The FBI is further looking into the charges that Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national, who was closely associated with the Qatari bid, had bribed executives of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) to back his failed FIFA presidential campaign earlier this year to unseat the group’s fourth time president, Sepp Blatter. The FBI bases its investigation on the grounds that the bribes may have crossed US borders.
The FBI investigations flow from an inquiry into the affairs of Chuck Blazer, general secretary of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) and a member of FIFA’s executive committee, who allegedly received commission payments from CONCACAF accounts totalling more than $500,000, some of which were linked to television contracts. Mr. Blazer sparked FIFA’s investigation of Mr. Bin Hammam based on evidence collected by a private investigator whom he had hired..
Mr. Bin Hammam, who was dismissed as FIFA vice president and banned for life from involvement in soccer in July, following a FIFA investigation into the charges, is set to defend himself in the first of at least two cases before the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration of Sports on January 23. The court will hear Mr. Bin Hammam’s request to annul an AFC decision to appoint acting AFC president Zhang Jilong as his successor in FIFA’s executive committee.
Mr. Bin Hamman has denied any wrong doing as has Qatar with regard to allegations of corruption in its World Cup bid campaign. Those allegations were substantially weakened earlier this year when a disgruntled Qatar bid committee employee confessed that she had fabricated charges of Qatari bribery that were widely reported in the media.
The employee’s admission failed however to silence Qatar’s critics. The British parliament’s media and culture committee has demanded an independent investigation into the awarding of the two World Cup tournaments. Committee member Damien Collins has launched a campaign for reform of FIFA.
Newly appointed FIFA executive committee member and German soccer federation president Theo Zwanziger this week denounced the awarding to Qatar in an interview with Agence France Presse. "The basic requirements for a host country have been perverted. I have never understood how such a small country can be awarded one of the most important sports events in the world, especially as Qatar were in last place on the grid before the decision was made,” Mr. Zwanziger said.
Australian soccer federation president Frank Lowy, speaking last week days after Mr. Blatter opened the door to an investigation of Qatar’s bid, said he believed that the Gulf state could be deprived of the right to host the tournament. The "last word hasn't been heard yet,'' Mr. Lowy said.
The soccer officials’ statements gained currency this week when the head of FIFA’s newly created Independent Governance Committee, Mark Pieth, told Associated Press that he will focus on FIFA;s past as well as its future. Mr. Pieth said he has “absolutely no objection to an investigation” and would soon interview investigative journalists who are “experts on FIFA’s past.”
Mr. Pieth is believed to have been referring to muckracking reporters Andrew Jennings and Jens Weinreich, who have long documented allegations of corruption in FIFA and were this year awarded for their reporting by Play the Game, a group that advocates transparency in sports. Both men have been banned by FIFA. Mr. Jennings detailed the alleged payments made to Mr. Blazer in accounts and letters sent to the FBI.
Mr. Blazer defended the payments at the time saying that “all of my transactions have been legally and properly done, in compliance with the various laws of the applicable jurisdictions based on the nature of the transaction.”
Renewed scrutiny of Qatar’s bid, could prompt the Gulf state to take a more proactive public relations approach, including releasing details of its successful campaign, something the Gulf state has so far refused to do.
In doing so, Qatar would be able at least shift some of the onus to FIFA and significant loopholes in its rules and regulations that govern its bidding process. Greater transparency would allow Qatar to separate what constitutes sour grapes on the part of those whose bids were not successful from what are legitimate concerns and put it in the position of advocating constructive reform of the bidding process.
Qatar has among others never revealed its budget for the bid nor has it publicly addressed in any serious fashion investment pledges it may have made in the home countries of FIFA executive committee members to influence their vote. Such investments are legal within the bidding rules but do raise ethical questions.
Speaking in London in October, Hassan al-Thawadi, the secretary general of Qatar’s 2022 committee, insisted that the bid was conducted to the ''highest ethical and moral standards" and portrayed Qatar as the victim of a campaign in which ''baseless accusations were made against our bid. We were presumed guilty before innocent without a shred of evidence being provided.'
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.