Searching for the smoking gun in Qatar’s ’22 World Cup controversy

Searching for the smoking gun in Qatar’s ’22 World Cup controversy

Searching for the smoking gun in Qatar’s ’22 World Cup controversy

A photo taken on May 29, 2011, shows the former president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), Qatar’s Mohammed bin Hammam, arriving at FIFA HQ.

Qatar’s handling of persistent suspicion that it illicitly employed its financial muscle to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup has earned it a conviction in the court of public opinion even if revelations of alleged bribery have yet to produce a smoking gun.

Qatar’s refusal to provide transparency and accountability about its World Cup bid, including details of its budget and the way that budget was spent as well as its relationship to disgraced former FIFA Vice President and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) President Mohammed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national, has only served to cement a public conviction that the Gulf state has much to hide.

Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, the body responsible for organizing the World Cup, issued this week a bland response to a report in Britain’s Sunday Times asserting that it had obtained documents proving that Bin Hammam bribed African football officials who are mostly not members of FIFA’s executive committee who vote on the awarding of World Cup hosting rights.

The brief statement denied any wrongdoing or relationship with Bin Hammam who in 2012 was banned by FIFA for life from involvement in professional football on charges of conflict of interest in his management of the AFC’s financial and commercial affairs.

Like earlier generic denials of wrongdoing, the statement failed to convince the public of Qatari innocence even though much of the suspicion stems from repeated controversy about the Gulf state’s bid and deep-seated distrust of global governance of football that has been wracked in the past four years by the worst corruption crisis in the 109-year history of FIFA. Bin Hammam was a central figure in those scandals.

The suspicion was also fuelled by the fact that Qatar invested a multiple of what its competitors, including the United States, South Korea and Australia, were willing to spend on their World Cup bids. Qatar’s massive spending generated envy despite the fact that FIFA rules do not set a ceiling on expenditure for World Cup bids.

Qatar’s failure to engage in the debate in a substantive way much as it engaged with human rights and labor activists who denounced abominable living and working conditions of foreign workers in the Gulf state has not only earned it a conviction in the court of public opinion but also undermined the goal it hoped to achieve with massive spending on sports.

Soft power

For Qatar, sports in general and football in particular is a means of building soft and subtle power – the kind of empathy in the international community and in public opinion that would persuade its friends to come to its aid in times of need like they did for Kuwait after it was invaded in 1990 by Iraq.

Qatar sees soft power as a compensation for the fact that it is tiny and has too small a population to build the kind of hard military power it would need to defend itself without international assistance. Being identified in the public mind with bribery and slavery, the term used by labor activists for labor conditions in the Gulf state, does not engender empathy.

If Qatar has all but lost its case in the eye of the public, it has done little to counter questions left unanswered by The Sunday Times revelations. Those revelations appear to provide further documentation of partly previously disclosed corruption and conflict of interest in the governance of world football as well as of Bin Hammam’s dubious financial dealings and management of both the AFC and FIFA’s football development Goal Program that is designed to fund projects of the group’s member associations.

The Sunday Times asserts that multiple payments it has documented are related to the Qatari bid, some of which were already referenced in an internal audit of the AFC’s finances two years ago that provided the grist for Bin Hammam’s downfall.

Extracts of emails published by the British paper do appear to establish a relationship between Bin Hammam and the Qatari bid committee. In some cases, the effort to influence the vote in favor of Qatar seems plausible. Nevertheless, one still will have to prove that the African football officials were in a position and succeeded in dictating the votes of African members of the FIFA executive committee. The statutes of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) do not suggest that its FIFA executive committee members are obliged to follow CAF instructions.

At the same time, the purpose of other payments disclosed by The Sunday Times may have been related to Bin Hammam’s bid to challenge FIFA President Sepp Blatter in the group’s 2011 presidential election. Bin Hammam was forced to withdraw his candidacy after he was initially suspended by FIFA on charges of trying to buy the votes of Caribbean football officials. While some of the emails from African officials who benefitted from Bin Hammam’s funding make explicit reference to Qatar’s World Cup bid, others appear to be supportive of Bin Hammam himself at a time that he was preparing for his attempt to wrest the FIFA presidency from Blatter.

Murky situation

The distinction between Qatar’s World Cup and Bin Hammam’s presidential bid is blurred by The Sunday Times’ report that the multi-millionaire used slush funds controlled by his company rather than by either the Qatari committee, FIFA or the AFC. The issue becomes even murkier with Bin Hammam being alleged to have been Blatter’s bag man in earlier FIFA elections.

Qatari officials have repeatedly suggested that they were opposed to Bin Hammam’s candidacy because they feared that Qatar’s winning of the hosting rights coupled with control of FIFA might be too much for the global football community to accept. The officials, however, never provided evidence of their assertion.

If Qatar is in the hot seat, FIFA appears about to join it. Independent FIFA investigator Michael Garcia has suggested that he will not take The Sunday Times files into consideration in drawing conclusions from his probe. On the assumption of innocent until proven guilty, it is Qatar’s interest to have its name cleared beyond doubt. In FIFA’s case, Garcia’s decision reinforces a widespread impression that the group is run by an old-boy network that unsuccessfully tries to maintain a façade of transparency and accountability but in effect is determined to preserve its old ways which over the last four years have produced one scandal after the other.