By Paul Gardner
I've had my say on this topic of the allocating of World Cups before, several times. To repeat: I think it makes no sense, is in fact absolutely asking for trouble, to put the vote in the hands of a small group of people, most of whom have little or no direct knowledge of what is required to make a good bid, and thus no way of assessing a bid. Assessing a bid, that is, in the only way that it should be assessed, on its merits.
And you can immediately see that “merits” is so wide-ranging -- it includes the strictly soccer matters, plus transport, accommodation, security and plenty of other matters that go into organizing such a vast sporting and cultural event -- that the valuation of a bid is a very complex business.
The alternative, which I have also suggested several times, firstly as a sort of joke, but it increasingly looks like a pretty good idea, is to first have the bids assessed by an expert committee (not by a committee composed entirely of FIFA members, most of whom will not be experts). Once that committee has decided which bids have merit, and thrown out any that do not meet the most rigorous standards, the names of the bidding countries go into the proverbial hat, and the winner is drawn in a totally public, utterly transparent operation -- probably made by some wonderfully cherubic little boy (which is OK, just as long as he does not turn out to be the son of the President of one of the bidding nations).
That’s a scheme that takes the FIFA Executive Committee members out of the equation completely -- which at the moment looks like something that’s highly desirable, because it is precisely with those committee members that the current huge problem has arisen.
The sting operation organized by the London Sunday Times has entrapped two of the members making it clear, on tape, that their votes are for sale. Well, that surely cannot have come as a frightful shock to anyone. You don’t have to assume that all the ExCo members are villains and knaves to see that they have in their votes, something that may not mean anything at all to them, but which means a king’s ransom to the bidding nations.
Why would a member from Asia care whether the 2018 World Cup is played in England or in Spain/Portugal? What solid, evidence-based reason would he have for choosing one country over another? What difference does it make to him? None. Any preferences he may come up with are the sort of preferences -- political, probably, or personal biases or even vendettas -- that should not figure in his decision.
So if a huge amount of money is on offer for a vote ... the temptation must be up there in the overwhelming area. It is a situation that calls for a level of probity that probably cannot be guaranteed within any group of 24 people.
But now we know that the voting on December 2 will not involve 24 people -- but only 22. Amos Adamu of Nigeria and Reynald Temarii of Tahiti, the two ExCo members caught on tape by the Sunday Times discussing money in the context of their votes, and mentioning sums ranging from $800,000 to $2 million, will not vote. Both have been suspended by FIFA’s own Ethics Committee.
The Committee’s decision is a sturdy response to the evidence, and does go some way to mollifying those who -- like myself -- never feel comfortable with the idea of disciplinary bodies investigating their own colleagues. An outside, independent inquiry always seems preferable.
The announcement came Thursday at a press conference called by Claudio Sulser, head of the committee. What Sulser had to say was said in clear, measured words, with no attempt to pretend that this was not an immensely serious matter. “The damage to FIFA’s image is great,” said Sulser, “When someone joins FIFA he takes on obligations, and you don't have the right to mistakes.”
For FIFA -- and particularly for the bidding countries, including the USA -- the wider damage done by the corruption revelations is that is has created an atmosphere of suspicion that is going to be very difficult to dispel.
Suspending the two members under investigation certainly removes them from casting suspect votes. But there was another issue that the Ethics Committee investigated: accusations that Qatar and Spain/Portugal had reached an agreement to trade a number of votes, with a Qatari bloc (reportedly seven votes) supporting Spain/Portugal for 2018, in return for a Spain/Portugal bloc (also seven votes) backing Qatar in the vote for the 2022 tournament -- i.e. the one for which the USA is also competing.
With respect to those charges, the situation remains unclear. FIFA has underlined that collusion over voting is “a clear violation of the Bid Registration document and the Code of Ethics.” But nailing down any proof was beyond the ability of the Ethics committee. “There will always be rumors,” said Sulser, a statement that already seems to downgrade the matter to one of gossip.
There was at least a claim of evidence, for Chuck Blazer, a Concacaf ExCo member, claimed to have seen a note passed from a Spanish official to one from Qatar, saying, “Congratulations, We’re going to win!” Yet the Committee did not talk to any of the ExCo members -- it merely invited written submissions. In the end “we didn’t find sufficient grounds to move forward” and so no action was taken.
Leaving the suspicions largely intact of course. Should it come to pass that the winning bids on December 2 are Spain/Portugal for 2018, and Qatar for 2022, who will believe that there was no collusion? And who will have any faith left in FIFA’s already shaky method of assigning World Cups?