Mihir Bose: Qatar 2022 and an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy

That the FIFA decision to award the World Cup to Qatar in 2022 is once again in the spotlight is no surprise but the manner in which it hogged the headlines last week has raised intriguing questions. These are how did the story emerge and is this an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy?

This is not to in any way suggest that the Daily Telegraph did not have a good story about the financial dealings between Jack Warner and Mohammed Bin Hammam just days after both, then members of the FIFA executive, voted on the Qatar bid. Claire Newell along with Jonathan Calvert, when the pair worked for the Sunday Times, exposed the corruption inside FIFA prior to the voting for the 2018 and 2002 bids. This led to two FIFA executive members being suspended with the result that only 22 sat round the table when the votes on the two bids took place in December 2010.

But that exposé involved undercover reporting. This was more traditional investigation getting hold of documents which showed payments from Hamman’s company to Warner and his family. However while the demand for the payment came two weeks after the vote, the actual payment was months later. And what the story did not prove was that the payment was in anyway connected with the vote. Nor did the story prove that the Qatar 2022 bid committee was involved. Hammam was not involved in the bid and the Qatar bid committee has always denied there was any wrongdoing on their part. They have continued to insist that they followed FIFA regulations to the letter and this story did nothing to disapprove that. What it raised was further questions about FIFA’s governance and ethics.

It must be said that the timing of the story could not have been better as it broke the very week the FIFA executive was holding a meeting in Zurich. The result was executive members were sent into a spin not knowing what had hit them.

But it was the source of the story and the follow up to it that raised many questions including the suspicion of Anglo-Saxon conspiracy. For a start the documents came from the FBI. The United States which came second to Qatar in the vote is the country that stands to benefit most from a revote so it is not surprising that some speculated that the US may have had a hand in the story. Not, probably, the US Federation which like all national associations swear allegiance to FIFA and professes complete faith in the FIFA investigation. But that cannot rule out some other US hand which prompted the emergence of this story.

And it was interesting that within days of the story emerging MLS Commissioner Don Garber was quoted as saying, “We certainly would be happy to host it here and have a lot of big stadiums that could turn it around and host on a very short notice.” He went on to warn that changing the Qatar World Cup dates to winter would play havoc with schedules for both US and Europe, “Their broadcast partners might have a problem with it going up against [NFL] football. It affects all of us for many, many years.”

Then there is Michael Garcia, the US lawyer who is investigating both the 2018 and 2022 bids on behalf of the FIFA Ethics Committee. Sharp eyed FIFA observers noted how he, like a modern day US Marshall, rode into town just as the story hit the internet and announced that he would interview all the sitting executive members about the 2022 vote. That left two questions: did he know the story was breaking and why should he interview only the sitting members? Some of those who voted back in December 2010 have left in disgrace and are, perhaps, out of FIFA’s remit. But three of them Franz Beckenbaeur, Geoff Thompson and Chung-Moon Joon are still connected with football. They remain very much a part of football’s family and are family members in good standing. So why should Garcia not quiz them? Indeed Thompson, at the time of the vote the British representative on FIFA, is still on FIFA committees and was in Zurich attending one such meeting as the story broke. So for Garcia to talk to him should have been no problem. However whatever Garcia’s role in this the news that he would talk to members meant his investigation which has been under the radar is now once again in the spotlight. In that sense the story did him no harm.

But where the suspicion of all this being the work of the British press really got legs was the Daily Telegraph’s follow up story the next day. The Telegraph had clearly wrong-footed its rivals who could offer nothing much to take the Telegraph story forward.

The problem was the Daily Telegraph also had nothing to take its story forward. So the next day, while it still splashed with FIFA and the Qatar World Cup story, its follow up story was about British MPs asking for a revote on the bid. At best this was an inside page filler. To suggest this was a news story that could lead the paper was extraordinary. Had the Telegraph forgotten that we had been at exactly the same spot nearly three years ago?

That is when the House of Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media and Sport held an investigation into the World Cup bids for both 2018 and 2022. The report was published in July 2011 and it is worth going back to the report. The MPs found it “appalling” how FIFA had swept aside “allegations of corruption” against members of its executive. To make matters worse, said the MPs, FIFA was treating those making the allegations with “contempt”.

I interviewed John Whittingdale, the chairman of the Select Committee the week the report was published and he had no doubts that FIFA’s system of deciding World Cup hosts was “deeply flawed. A relatively small number of individuals [generally 24 executive members but in this case 22] decide which countries should host the competitions. This provides an extremely lucrative opportunity for them. Therefore a great deal of money is at stake. And, given the process is also shrouded in mystery, it is immensely susceptible to corruption.”

Not that Whittingdale had much confidence that FIFA would reform. “FIFA does not inspire confidence that the recognition of the need for change has got through.” In some ways the final straw for Whittingdale was the extraordinary way FIFA treated its own Ethics committee report. “The Ethics Committee report we understand has serious questions to answer on the part of Jack Warner. He then resigns and FIFA says we don’t need to do anything and will drop the investigation. That is extraordinary. FIFA needs to publish the Ethics Committee report. It is in desperate need of fundamental reform and pressure for change is substantial.”

A CONCACAF integrity report on Jack Warner was published but that was some years later.

Back in 2011 Whittingdale felt the pressure on FIFA was coming from Hugh Robertson, the then British sports minister. “Hugh feels strongly that there needs to be dialogue between the FA and the government about how to achieve FIFA reform. We need to gather support among football nations and at government level to ensure Sepp Blatter delivers.” We all know what has happened since. Roberston has moved on Blatter is still there and likely to stand for another term.

But even as Whittingdale was making these points he accepted that England could be seen as bad losers having lost the 2018 World Cup bid. “There is a danger that having got a derisory two votes, one of them English, we will be accused of sour grapes.” However he denied any such motivation. “The evidence of corruption is overwhelming now. We have some criticism about the England bid. But there was substantial corruption in the process and that was an additional hurdle and put a huge question mark over the entire bid.”

The Daily Telegraph story has once again raised questions, this time about 2022. But given the British press seems to be the only media raising this issue and no smoking gun has yet emerged it strengthens the hand of those within FIFA who have never really wanted to look under the floorboards of the 2022 bidding process in any meaningful way, fearful of what they may find.

The bid investigation will really go somewhere if the media from round the world join in. But there is no evidence of that happening. They do not seem to care and this suits FIFA, which has always given the impression that this is now an old story best forgotten.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose