When FIFA president Sepp Blatter held up the card that revealed which country would host the 2022 World Cup, at a dramatic ceremony in Zurich in December 2010, it was an unprecedented moment for world soccer. Qatar, a small but immensely wealthy Arab country that has almost no soccer history and has never qualified for a World Cup, would host the most-watched sporting event on earth.
So odd was the selection in the view of the world’s media, and of other nations competing to host the cup, that it fueled almost immediate accusations of corruption and bribery. At the same ceremony, Russia was awarded the 2018 World Cup, but has so far avoided the same level of scrutiny.
Now, almost five years later and just a week after the U.S. Department of State indicted nine FIFA and five sports marketing officials for fraud and money laundering, Sepp Blatter has resigned from the world soccer organization. The U.S. indictments do not involve Blatter and do not allege any wrongdoing relative to the Russian and Qatari bids, but they do say that bribery was involved in assigning South Africa the 2010 tournament, and that corruption was a way of life for the world's top soccer body.
That means FIFA may be heading toward another unprecedented move -- stripping a host country of the World Cup, if authorities unveil corruption in the bidding process. Qatar's history-making tournament looks shaky, and according to some FIFA watchers, Russia's is too.
This would create a major problem for FIFA. If the Cup won't be held there, who can step in and host instead?
Only once, since the World Cup was first held in Uruguay in 1930, has a host been replaced. In 1982 Colombia, citing deep financial problems in the lead-up to the 1986 competition, told FIFA it would withdraw. FIFA accepted, and the following year Mexico was chosen in its place to host its second World Cup, after first hosting in 1970.
But on that occasion, it was a mutual decision between Colombia and FIFA. At this stage, stripping Russia or Qatar would be forced. While FIFA would have time to think about how to replace Qatar, the Russian World Cup is only three years away, and by the time Sepp Blatter is replaced as president sometime between December and March, that time frame will be cut down to a little over two years. It's unlikely, experts say, that the process of replacing a World Cup host chosen under Blatter will begin while he still is technically in charge.
Unlike Qatar, a sweltering desert nation that will have to build its stadiums from scratch and would force teams to play in torrid temperatures, Russia -- and before it the Soviet Union -- has a rich soccer history. It's also pretty much the last large European country capable of hosting the World Cup that hasn’t been given the chance yet. Moscow’s biggest hurdle in holding on to its World Cup, however, comes in the form of its involvement in the war in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, which has prompted many to question whether it should be stripped of its hosting duties. Others have asked whether the entire event should be boycotted, in the same way the 1980 Moscow Olympics was by dozens of countries because of the Soviet war in Afghanistan.
According to Jean-François Tanda, a Swiss lawyer and investigative journalist who has a decade of experience reporting on FIFA, there are hard choices ahead for the organization.
“For those countries to lose the World Cups, there would have to be proof that the decision-making process was illegal and the host countries were giving bribes to officials,” he said. “But the question is, who gets to host instead if that can be proven?”
Many will look at large European countries, such as England, Germany and France, which all have the sufficient infrastructure to host a World Cup at very short notice, Tanda said. But the countries that came second in the bidding process might have a legal right to host instead, he said, and may even be the plaintiffs in any lawsuit to have the decision overturned.
In the case of Russia, a joint bid from Spain and Portugal was beaten into second place for 2018, and Qatar was victorious over the United States for 2022. Spain and Portugal have since been hit by financial problems and would likely pass on a short-notice World Cup, but the U.S., which has a wealth of stadiums and infrastructure ready, is in a prime position to host. A lot of World Cup sponsors are also based in the U.S., and their voices count, since they make FIFA a lot of money. The organization reaped $2 billion in profit from the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, a 66 percent increase from the previous one in South Africa in 2010.
Qatar has already said it won’t give up easily, if it comes to a fight. Speaking on Wednesday, Qatar’s foreign minister Khaled al-Attiyah said: "No way Qatar can be stripped [of the Cup]. We are confident of the procedures and deserve to win it because we presented the best file." He also said Qatar would be able to prove it had done nothing wrong.
Paul Greene, a sports lawyer who has appeared numerous times in front of the International Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, says that such a move to strip hosting rights would be utterly unprecedented in sport. It would be difficult to foresee how a legal challenge by Russia or Qatar might unfold.
“I would imagine the place it would probably start is the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” he said. However, “it’s not 100 percent clear that that would be the ultimate place at this stage. They might bring a lawsuit in a civil court in their own country and get a judgment against FIFA,” he said.
Arbitration can be a complex procedure, Greene said, and much of Russia and Qatar’s legal recourse would rely on the contract under which both World Cups were officially awarded to them. For now, those contracts are not publicly available.
“I haven’t seen the contracts for the World Cups, but there could well be a morals clause that says something like ‘if you disgrace us in any way or don’t present FIFA’s image in a positive way, you will have the contract terminated,’ " he said.
But because stripping a team of a World Cup would be a first, according to Greene, judges and arbitrators would look for analogies to other situations in the past to find some sort of guiding precedent. In this case, the judges may look at how cases involving individual sports stars panned out in the past. “Arbitration is featured in individual contract disputes all the time," he said, and those contracts "are often cited at the Court of Arbitration in Switzerland.”
As for what might happen to Qatar and Russia, given what we know now, Greene said he believed that Russia would retain the rights, but Qatar would almost certainly be switched as the U.S. government's probe of FIFA advances. "I won’t be surprised," he said, "if they pull something that implicates Qatar.”