Sepp Blatter
FIFA president Sepp Blatter, seen with the World Cup trophy in Brazil last week, is facing increasing pressure over the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Reuters

There is little doubt that FIFA would have wished for more positive headlines entering the latest staging of their showpiece event. The 2014 World Cup has already proved one of the most problematic for soccer’s governing body, with delays over the building of stadiums and protests in Brazil about the way in which public money has been spent, distracting coverage from the potential action on the pitch and causing plenty of headaches at FIFA headquarters.

While events in Brazil will be the immediate concern, there is another issue that refuses to go away and threatens to cast a far bigger shadow over the organization. The release of documents by Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper last week, detailing fresh allegations about bribes changing hands in order to secure Qatar the 2022 World Cup, has ramped up the controversy about the award of the competition to the small desert nation with little history of soccer.

Such accusations have been rife from the moment president Sepp Blatter announced Qatar as having won a vote among FIFA’s executive committee in December 2010. The scrutiny has been such that FIFA, no stranger to allegations of impropriety, have even launched their own investigation, led by former New York attorney Michael Garcia. His findings are set to be released next month, although, with the revelation that the Sunday Times’ findings will not be considered, there are fears of a whitewash. From their base in Zurich, Switzerland, FIFA has thus far been allowed to run almost as a law unto themselves. Such an attitude is perhaps understandable, given that there has been little to suggest FIFA’s flagship product has yet been tainted by a widespread suspicion about the activities of the organization. Indeed, they will garner record profits from the World Cup in Brazil. Going forward, however, there are growing signs that the pressure for meaningful action will prove telling.

Anyone in Brazil over the next month will not be able to move for paraphernalia promoting FIFA’s blue-chip sponsors. For the privilege of association with the event and often exclusivity arrangements inside the venues, between them they garner the organization a staggering $1.5 billion over a four-year World Cup cycle. While FIFA may be able to ignore the common fan in the stands or in front of television sets across the globe, in the knowledge that they will continue to absorb the product on the pitch regardless of the unsavory distractions off it, a threat to their sponsorship revenue will surely be taken seriously. And such threats may be forthcoming, with several of FIFA’s sponsors voicing their concerns about the recent revelations.

“The negative tenor of the public debate around FIFA at the moment is neither good for football nor for FIFA and its partners," read a statement from Adidas, FIFA’s longest-serving sponsor.

Coca-Cola followed suit. “Anything that detracts from the mission and ideals of the FIFA World Cup is a concern to us, but we are confident that FIFA is taking these allegations very seriously and is investigating them thoroughly through the investigatory chamber of the FIFA ethics committee.”

Sony, meanwhile, stated, via a spokesman, that it expected the allegations “to be investigated appropriately.”

For the time being it remains a problem down the road. Scrutiny over the Qatar World Cup in eight years’ time looks unlikely to do anything to turn people off the action in Brazil, which begins on Thursday. FIFA has revealed that there has been a record demand for World Cup tickets this time around, with more than 11 million ticket requests received thus far for just 3.1 million available. Of those, just shy of 3 million had been sold, as of last Friday.

It may surprise many that, outside of host nation Brazil, the country to have brought most tickets is the United States. Nearly 200,000 have been sold to in the U.S., showing an appetite for the game in a country which has been slow to get the soccer bug, which goes beyond even simply following its own national team.

Encouragingly for FIFA, interest in soccer continues to grow in the U.S. The 2010 World Cup set a new benchmark for soccer coverage and viewing numbers in the U.S., and ESPN is stepping up its coverage once more this time around. More than 290 hours of original programming will be screened across ESPN, ESPN2 and ABC, including the broadcasting of all 64 matches live.

FOX Sports has backed on that interest growing. In 2011, the network paid $400 million for English-language rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, more than four times the $100 million it took for ESPN to secure the 2010 and 2014 editions. NBC/Comcast-owned Telemundo will pay around $600 million for the Spanish-language rights in the U.S.

There is little doubt that the U.S. market is now a key consideration for FIFA. Although there has been no indication yet that the negative press regarding the Qatar World Cup bid, including the rights of workers’ building the infrastructure around the tournament, has impacted interest, the more long-sighted among FIFA’s members will be well aware of the risk of slowing the growth of the game.

FOX has already voiced its concerns about the idea that the Qatar World Cup will be moved to the winter in order to avoid the blazing-hot summer temperatures. Having paid so much for summer programming, the idea of marketing the World Cup near the Winter Olympiocs and at the climax to the NFL season will not impress.

It is well established that, not only did Blatter not want the World Cup to go to Qatar, but he wanted it to go to fellow bidder the U.S., adding an extra element of intrigue. It could be that Blatter, who will be up for re-election next year, likely against Qatar-supporter Michel Platini, could help safeguard both his own future and the reputation of FIFA, especially in the U.S., with a re-vote.