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Why This World Cup Is Dogged by Corruption Allegations

Every World Cup has tournament-defining moments that fans will remember in the same way they remember meeting the love of their life. Or the Kennedy assassination.

I am at best a casual soccer fan, but I can still tell you that when Zinedine Zidane head-butted Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France, I was standing next to friends from my summer job, holding a half-drunk glass of vodka and cranberry juice that had become pale and watery from melted ice. I remember the pause that hung in the air as it took a moment for the crowd around me to realize what had happened, the mutters of confusion that quickly curdled into bellows of rage. And I remember feeling unaccountably aggrieved by the Italy fans, who seemed unbearably smug about their team’s win after their player was so abused.

But when it comes to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, it’s not clear that any moment on the field will be more defining than the one that occurred on Dec. 2, 2010, long before the tournament even began. That was when Sepp Blatter, then the president of FIFA, soccer’s governing body, stood up in a Zurich auditorium and announced that Qatar had won the contest to host the 2022 tournament, even though the nation lacked infrastructure for mass tourism, soccer stadiums, and summer weather in which one could safely play soccer. That was the moment when, in the eyes of much of the world, this World Cup became irrevocably linked to corruption.

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The announcement was meant to mark the beginning of a new era for Qatar as a major player on the world stage. But because the small country seemed so flagrantly unsuited to the needs of the event, Qatar’s victory instead catalyzed a new era of scrutiny of corruption within FIFA itself. The intervening years have seen most of the people who decided the bid indicted, sanctioned by soccer authorities for ethics breaches, or targeted with corruption accusations.

But as I’ve often written in this column, corruption is about systems, not just individual bad actors. And so I called my colleague Tariq Panja — who has been covering this story from the beginning — to talk about the system that brought the World Cup to Qatar. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

Amanda Taub: Start by giving me the high-level version. If somebody just has a kind of vague, hazy awareness of corruption within FIFA somehow affecting this World Cup, what do they need to know about what happened here?

Tariq Panja: In June 2009, Qatar, a tiny country in the middle of a desert, decided to bid for the World Cup. But first it had to convince a majority of the members of the board of FIFA, made up, at the time, of men and women, from six regional governing bodies. There are supposed to be 24 board members, but two were expelled after being exposed by undercover reporters for the Sunday Times of London newspaper for offering to sell their votes.

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On Dec. 2, 2010, we all gathered in a Zurich auditorium. The anonymous vote was held, and Sepp Blatter, then the president of FIFA, opened the envelope for 2022, and Qatar had won.

Cue claims of corruption.

There was nothing about this country that made it a likely candidate for hosting the world’s biggest sporting event. It pretty much had none of the infrastructure, not only stadiums, but rail, metro, hotels and transit — everything you can imagine, they didn’t have it.

And Qatar bid for this tournament to be held in June and July, which FIFA’s own technical inspector said posed a health risk to fans, players and officials because of the heat.

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But FIFA chose it.

In the decade after, almost every single one of the people who voted on this bid has been either indicted on corruption charges by the authorities, or been banned from soccer or sanctioned from soccer for breaching ethics guidelines, or faced allegations of massive corruption. Almost all of them.

AT: Those indictments and sanctions are the result of multiple investigations across different countries into corruption within FIFA generally, not just about this bid. But what did they uncover about how the Qatar bid worked?

TP: The French are looking into one particular meeting on Nov. 23, 2010, nine days before the vote, in the Elysee Palace, the French president’s official residence.

In the room are the then-Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim of Qatar, currently the Emir; HBJ, the prime minister of Qatar; a couple of French government officials; and Michel Platini, the head of European football. Just a few months earlier, Platini said he hoped anyone but Qatar would win but later said he was going to tell Nicolas Sarkozy, then the French president, that he had already decided to vote for Qatar.

Platini has influence over the votes of the other European members on FIFA’s executive committee. So he takes a lot of votes with him.

And Qatar agrees to buy Paris Saint-Germain, this football club that was going nowhere and is now turned into a basket of celebrities. BeIn sports, at that time a Middle East regional television station, starts to expand its footprint into Europe, and pours billions of euros into French football and European football more broadly.

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Shortly after that, France sells billions of dollars worth of Rafale military jets and Airbuses to Qatar, and the business relationship just expands after that moment. So that’s the kind of level that we’re talking about.

And here is another example: a 2019 U.S. indictment, unrelated to the French meeting, states that three South American football officials, from Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, received an undisclosed amount of money to vote for Qatar. Didn’t say from whom. Qatar has always denied this.

AT: I often write about how corruption is not something that happens because of bad individuals’ bad decisions. Rather, it happens because corrupt systems demand corruption, and encourage corruption, so you end up with a situation where everyone thinks that participating in corruption is their only option. A corrupt equilibrium.

TP: Right. Qatar just played the game everyone else was going to, they just had more means to do it. Whoever was going to win was never going to win this cleanly. There was perhaps no way to win this cleanly.

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The system of FIFA created perfect conditions for this. And that system has been in place for at least four decades.

AT: What happened four decades ago?

TP: A system was created in which the only people that have a real say are the 211 FIFA members and the FIFA president they vote for. Most of them represent countries that are either small, or insignificant in a football sense. But it’s one member, one vote. That is a huge amount of power for each of these little countries.

And then some of them can group together. The Caribbean has many little islands but 37 have grouped together in the Caribbean Football Union. If they vote in a bloc, that makes them one of the most powerful vote banks in football.

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And that was in the grip of Jack Warner from Trinidad, now indicted by the U.S. and fighting extradition from Trinidad. Everyone turned a blind eye to him because he was so important. He could deliver these 37 votes!

And that system, of one member, one vote, is still in place.

AT: One thing that does sometimes seem to make a difference to systemic corruption is when there is an outside prosecution or investigation. An expert I spoke to once called independent prosecutors “islands of honesty,” and said that under the right circumstances they can disrupt the equilibrium that keeps corruption going.

In 2015 there was a big prosecution by the United States, which indicted more than a dozen soccer officials on charges relating to bribery and tax evasion, including Jack Warner. Did things change after that?

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TP: Here’s something that I find amazing. The U.S. has fired down this indictment, shaken the place to its very core. And yet in many, many ways, FIFA has largely not changed.

This very powerful president is still there. The one member, one vote system is in place. The committee systems are in place. And the U.S. seems to have lost interest. Because guess what? Guess who is hosting the next World Cup?

It reminds me of Terminator 2. The villain in that, every time his head got chopped off or an arm fell off, it would just sort of turn into this metal and then reconstitute itself. It just kept reconstituting itself. And this reminds me of FIFA. That no matter how bad things get, it just comes back to the old ways.

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