By Paul Gardner
Absolutely asking for it. That would be a concise comment on FIFA’s bidding process for the rights to stage the 2018 and 2022 World Cups -- now engulfed in allegations of corruption.
This is a process similar to that used by the International Olympic Committee to decide which city stages the Olympic Games. The IOC has had its problems, as we all know.
And we also all know that FIFA had problems back in 2000 with the voting for the rights to stage the 2006 World Cup.
How would anyone expect the process to be otherwise? When a vitally important vote, with millions or billions of dollars at stake, is given to a small number of people -- people who are in no sense experts at what they’re voting on -- what is to be expected other than, at least, influence peddling, and at worst, outright corruption?
In the case of the World Cup, the small number of people are the guys (yes, they’re all males) who make up FIFA’s Executive Committee. In 2000 one of them -- New Zealand’s Charlie Dempsey -- decided to abstain in the crucial vote and precipitately fled back from Zurich to Auckland. Why? He cited “unsustainable pressure,” but never got around to identifying the source. His vote was wanted -- desperately needed -- by both Germany and South Africa. If Germany got it, it was the winner. If South Africa got it, the vote tally was tied and the assumption was that South Africa would then win by getting president Sepp Blatter’s casting vote. By abstaining, Dempsey ensured that Germany was the winner -- by one vote.
The whole murky affair had clarity in only one aspect -- it was a shining example of how to create a problem -- the bidding system itself. For a start, it is, for the countries involved, massively expensive (for that 2000 decision, England had spent $15 million -- it got 2 votes and was quickly out of the running).
Given what is at stake, no one should be surprised that there just might be attempts at bribery. But not necessarily open attempts. Maybe a deal could be arranged whereby one of the smaller, less wealthy, nations, or even a Confederation, could get a training complex built by one of the rich bidding nations? Would that be bribery?
It was evidently with that sort of knowledge in mind, that the London newspaper The Sunday Times decided to set up a sting: To offer money to a member, or members, of the FIFA ExCo in return for their votes. The Exco consists of 23 members, plus Sepp Blatter in his capacity as FIFA President.
It is difficult to believe that the ST would have wasted its efforts and its money on such an operation unless it believed it would succeed. That confidence would rest on two things.
Firstly, that there were ExCo members who would respond to offers of money. The ST can no doubt explain why the members it selected were Amos Adamu of Nigeria and the Oceania Football Confederation president Reynald Temarii of Tahiti.
Secondly -- and this is the topic that interests me -- the journalists’ cover story (by which I mean, their lies) had to be convincing. Who would they be pretending to represent? As candidates for this dubious honor, there were the bidding countries -- including England, Russia, Australia, Japan, Qatar, South Korea and the USA. The ST chose the USA -- indirectly.
The journalists posed as lobbyists for a “consortium of American companies” who wanted the World Cup to be staged in the USA. They were not posing as direct representatives of the United States Soccer Federation. USSF president Sunil Gulati was quick to point out that “The Sunday Times report makes it clear, but it bears emphasis and repeating, that the USA Bid Committee had zero involvement with any aspect of the reporting that resulted in this story.”
So, in theory, the USSF is not sullied by the story. But the terse and tart nature of Gulati’s statement surely hints at an awareness that the linking of the USA’s bid to a story involving bribery is bound to be damaging.
This is something that the ST must have been well aware of. After all, the ST’s journalists were claiming to be seeking votes for the USA’s bid. Why not for Qatar? Or for Australia or Japan?
Or, for that matter, for England? What made the idea of American involvement so attractive to the ST? This might be a tricky one for the ST to answer, for at the time of the sting England and the USA were in direct competition (that ceased to be the case only last week, when the USA withdrew its bid for the 2018 tournament).
The ST report has created what Blatter describes as “a very unpleasant situation ... The information in the article has created a very negative impact on FIFA and on the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups.” This should not come as a surprise. The “bidding process” is a festering sore, always likely to erupt into unpleasantness. It is an impure process that involves the waste of millions of dollars and brashly invites corruption. It also encourages precisely the sort of sting operation played out by the ST.
The English tabloid press has a history of these stings -- in 2006 Sven Goran Eriksson was victimized by the News of the World when he made a whole series of “unguarded” remarks to someone he believed was a rich Arab interested in investing in soccer. The “fake sheikh” was a reporter.
But the ST is not a tabloid. It has an honorable history, not so much in stings, as in investigative journalism. Under which heading does this operation belong? Either way, there is no escaping the fact that this was a form of entrapment. I don’t know anyone who can feel comfortable with that. And, for the moment, Adamu and Temarii seem to be guilty of nothing more than asking for lots of money ... to help their soccer programs.
The USA bid has taken a knock from the ST’s sting. A suspicion has been sewn. In organizing the sting, the ST could plausibly have chosen England or any other bidding nation as the country whose bid their investigators were ostensibly trying to facilitate. It preferred to cast a cloud over the USA’s bid. Why?