Qatar's ugly World Cup exposed

June 19, 2015

Migrant workers are employed in slave-like conditions on construction of Qatar's World Cup facilities.

The Ugly games: The Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup
Heidi Blake & Jonathan Calvert
Simon & Schuster, 2015 472 pages

The only surprising thing about the FIFA corruption scandal is that anyone should be surprised, given the long history of credible allegations of bribery in world football’s governing body.

As Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert, investigative journalists at Britain’s The Sunday Times, reveal in their expose of Qatar’s corrupt winning in 2010 of the hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup, the technical merits of the competing bids “were not worth the glossy paper they were printed on”. What mattered was money.

The winner was the country with the world's highest per capita GDP, the sweltering desert monarchy of the football minnow, Qatar. It bought the most votes amongst the 24-member FIFA Executive Committee, the “elite cabal” who run world football.

Courtesy of a FIFA whistle-blower who leaked a mountain of confidential Qatari documents, Blake and Calvert copiously document the corrupt back room deals and vote-rigging.

The architect of Qatar’s victory was Mohamed bin Hammam, building industry billionaire, royal family insider, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president and FIFA executive member.

Despite being privately described as “our greatest asset” by the Qatari bid team, Hammam was publicly kept at arm’s length as he successfully bribed scores of FIFA officials through the AFC, his building company and other slush funds.

Hammam paid more than US$5 million to the presidents of 30 national football associations in Africa, venal men who had risen above Africa’s endemic poverty and who fully intended to stay that way. About $1.7 million of Hammam's money found its way to football chiefs in Asia.

The recipients’ emails to Hammam contain effusive outpourings of brotherly devotion and, by the way, yes, US dollars would be fine and here are my bank account details.

These national football bosses would influence their regional Cup-voting FIFA executive representatives. Their votes were also ripe for cultivation by Hammam through cash backhanders and lavish hospitality for international, all-expenses-paid junkets.

This is business-as-usual for these top decision-makers, whether voting on Cup sponsorship by major corporations, Cup broadcasting rights, Cup venues or FIFA presidents.

Hammam also dished out vote-inducing football “development” grants to poor countries through FIFA’s “Goal Program”, a vote-currying creation of recently resigned FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

Hammam was as adept at gas-for-votes as cash-for-votes, facilitating huge and highly favourable trade deals for football nations on Qatari gas (for Thailand) and Siberian gas extraction (for Russia).

His flurry of commercial matchmaking also procured the support of other countries through billion dollar corporate deals on property (for Thailand), land (for Cyprus), football clubs (for France’s financially-plagued Paris Saint-Germain), football television rights (for the French government) and Cup infrastructure building contracts (for Belgium).

The official Qatar World Cup bid was not content to outsource all the vote-buying to Hammam. They secretly offered $1.5 million to key African members of the executive and to African national football presidents. They also funnelled $1.8 million to Africa for a well-catered regional football shindig whose real business took place in side-meetings between Hammam and African football chiefs.

The other string to Hammam’s bow was vote-trading collusion, which is technically forbidden under FIFA rules but undetectable because Cup voting is secret. Among other pacts, Hammam arranged for his Asian confederation votes to go to the joint Spain-Portugal bid for the 2018 Cup in return for the Iberian votes supporting Qatar for 2022.

All this activity delivered the prize when the FIFA executive, barely pausing to acknowledge, let alone read, the FIFA technical assessors’ report that rated Qatar’s as the worst of the bids, voted for Qatar to host the 2022 Cup.

Incredulity at this decision sparked renewed allegations of corruption but over at FIFA’s ethics committee, serenity reigned. And why not, when the committee’s members included the corrupt (Hammam was a former member) and ancient judges whose well-remunerated sinecures depended on not upsetting the family business.

The vehemence of public outrage, however, eventually compelled FIFA to refurbish its ethics window-dressing by beefing up the ethics committee with a criminal investigator.

Qatari money again proved its power, however, as FIFA’s internal cop, and his entire investigations team, was bought off with well-upholstered positions at a new International Centre for Sports Security in Doha. FIFA’s internal investigation duly delivered no adverse corruption findings.

At the end of this “Great Cup Robbery”, Hammam took the time to attend to his own nest, challenging Blatter for the top job in FIFA’s 2011 presidential election. Hammam deployed his usual junkets, bank transfers and envelopes stuffed with cash.

Blatter, however, out-Machiavellied Hammam. He used the public backlash against Qatar’s corrupt purchase of the 2022 Cup to threaten Qatar with being stripped of hosting rights unless Hammam withdrew from the race, which the billionaire duly did.

As a heavily censored new internal ethics investigation report put Qatar and Russia in the clear for their Cup hosting wins, all ended well for FIFA’s privileged parasites. Qatar’s 2022 Cup was safe. Blatter’s job, and its huge, but secret, salary, was safe. FIFA’s culture of corruption remained safe.

The FBI, whose recent raids narrowly post-date the publication of this angry but pessimistic book, may be the “super-sub” that sinks the FIFA rust-bucket. But FIFA’s structural corruption needs a radically more democratic game-changer, a revolution in who controls the people’s game — those who profit from it, whether by legal or corrupt means, or the those who watch, play and love the game.

Related: FIFA scandal fuelled by corporate riches, political manoeuvres

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