Less than two weeks before the World Cup begins in Brazil, international soccer’s governing body FIFA is under renewed, unwanted scrutiny that threatens to overshadow its flagship event.
Fresh allegations have emerged over the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, a decision that has been shrouded in controversy since the moment the tiny desert nation with no soccer tradition and with summer temperatures of up to 120 F was picked as host in 2010. As if that weren’t enough, an investigation has revealed apparent evidence of matches being fixed by betting syndicates ahead of the last World Cup in South Africa.
Add that to the protests in Brazil over the way in which public money has been spent, which are sure to fill the streets of the country during the World Cup, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to focus on events on the field. Pressure is mounting on the Swiss-based organization, which has long been beset by allegations of corruption but which has thus far remained largely unscathed -- and unchanged.
The issue of Qatar, though, refuses to go away.
The problems started with the decision to allow, for the first time, two World Cups to be awarded at the same time. Immediately there were reports of votes being traded between nations bidding for 2018 and 2022. The vote in favor of handing the hosting rights for 2022 not to the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea, to Qatar, but to the only option rated as “high risk” by the FIFA inspection team brought instant scrutiny. Qatar’s campaign featuring glitzy presentations of air-conditioned stadiums and incredibly well-paid soccer luminaries such as Zinedine Zidane and Pep Guardiola had prevailed.
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Despite the health risks to players and supporters being mentioned in the bid report, however, it was only after the tournament had been awarded that talk began of the need to move it to the winter months. The unprecedented switch, which would disrupt the soccer calendar of many European nations and beyond, now looks all but inevitable. Continued stories of human-rights abuses concerning migrant workers constructing the lavish infrastructure projects required in the small Arab nation have also tarnished the event years before a ball is kicked.
But the latest allegations from The Sunday Times may be the most damaging yet. The British broadsheet claims they received millions of secret documents that show that a number of football officials took payments totaling $5 million in return for supporting Qatar’s bid. The man at the center of the allegations is former Asian Football Confederation President Mohamed bin Hammam. The reputation of the Qatari official has already been massively tarnished by his banning from soccer for life in 2011 after being found guilty of trying to buy votes in the lead up to the FIFA presidential election that year. That ban was later annulled by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, but he was soon given a second life ban by FIFA for “repeated violations” of the ethics code relating to “conflicts of interest.” Qatar 2022 executives claim Bin Hammam had neither an official nor an unofficial role in their bid, but that has proved hard for many to accept.
Denials have come from elsewhere, too. The Sunday Times’ investigation alleges payments were made to the presidents of 30 African football associations, but on Monday president of the Confederation of African Football categorically denied any wrongdoing.
Still, calls are now coming for Qatar to be stripped of the bid. Even British Prime Minister David Cameron has weighed in, again discussing his unhappiness with the outcome of England’s bid for 2018 and supporting the ongoing inquiry. Former New York attorney Michael Garcia, who has been charged with investigating the 2018 and 2022 bids, is due to meet Qatar officials this week. Yet, with doubts about just how much he has been given access to, there will be much scrutiny on the report, which is now set to be submitted next month.
That would mean it dropping just after the culmination of this summer’s World Cup. That event and the exhibition matches leading up to it will already be under harsher scrutiny, following a report from the New York Times into friendlies being rigged before the last World Cup. After seeing an investigative report by FIFA and conducting interviews with dozens of soccer officials, referees, gamblers and investigators, the Times concluded that an Asia-based match-fixing syndicate tried to influence 15 matches, by ensuring that certain referees under their influence were appointed to officiate. In one such match, between South Africa and Guatemala, three penalties were questionably awarded.
As worrying is the assertion that FIFA has done little to punish those involved. It is not the first time allegations of match-fixing in soccer have emerged. Last year Europol, the European Union’s police intelligence agency, said there were 680 suspicious matches played worldwide between 2008 and 2011. Just last week, the Scottish Football Association were contacted by the National Crime Agency about a threat of match fixing concerning their friendly with Nigeria.
Given the increased scrutiny, the risks involved in trying to fix matches at the World Cup would be far greater. It would be unfeasible, for example, for referees to be switched as they were in the matches investigated by the Times. Players would also be less inclined to influence games at a competition that represents the pinnacle of their sporting careers. If there is a danger, though, then it would be in the final games of the group stage, which often involve teams who have already been eliminated from the tournament.
This summer’s World Cup already promises to be the most uncomfortable yet for FIFA. The governing body has been continually frustrated in the buildup by the unprecedented delays in the building of Brazil’s stadiums. The tardiness of Brazil’s planning for the event has led to more public money being spent on the stadiums and far less on infrastructure and public services. That reversal sparked protests at last year’s warm-up event, the Confederations Cup, and looks set to do so this summer, too.
FIFA has tried to distance itself from those issues. But the fact that they are expected to make $4 billion in profits from the competition, while being granted mandated tax emptions during the monthlong tournament in Brazil, means they too are open to criticism.
Given all the issues relating to both the bidding for and hosting of the World Cup, questions are raised about whether democratic nations, without the desire to use such events to boost their or their leader’s image globally, will continue to see it as worth their trouble. Recent reports about the lack of interest in bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics only add to his notion. That, though, may not be a problem for FIFA.
"I will say something which is crazy, but less democracy is sometimes better for organizing a World Cup,” FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke said last year.
Still, events in Brazil over the next six weeks coupled with Michael Garcia’s report could well be decisive in the future direction of FIFA and its flagship event, especially with president Sepp Blatter facing his biggest challenge yet in next year’s election.