Twelve years ago, when Sepp Blatter, then the president of FIFA, stood before a packed auditorium on a snowy afternoon in Zurich, clutching an envelope containing the name of the country chosen to host the 2022 World Cup, it was already an open secret that he presided over a rancid institution. Despite earning multibillion-dollar revenues, the governing body of world soccer had long exploited an arcane quirk of Swiss law to stay registered as a nonprofit association, insulating itself from the country’s anti-corruption laws. Thus, enjoying similarly scant regulation to an Alpine yodelling group, soccer’s ruling élite had enriched themselves with impunity. And, as long as the play on the field remained unscathed, it seemed that the fans didn’t much care how FIFA administrators filled their pockets. The announcement that the World Cup was to be sent to the tiny desert state of Qatar was the moment when that entente ended.
The World Cup is FIFA’s prized jewel, worth billions of dollars in TV rights and sponsorship deals. It is the biggest sporting tournament on earth, watched by around half of the planet’s population, and choosing the host country is arguably the organization’s most sacred duty. In 2010, Qatar was a repressive autocracy with a thin soccer tradition and barely any sports infrastructure. Yet it had beaten established footballing nations, among them the U.S.A., Australia, and Japan, which offered indisputably stronger bids. How had this happened?
Qatar had never even qualified for a World Cup, and it had not a single soccer stadium fit for hosting an event on this scale. Delivering the tournament would require a frenzy of construction by migrant workers, who make up around ninety-five per cent of the country’s workforce and toil under a labor system riddled with abuses. The country’s human-rights record was and remains chilling: same-sex relationships are criminalized, journalists and activists have repeatedly been detained, women live under the tight control of male guardians, and flogging is a legal form of punishment. In addition, a Qatar World Cup could be downright dangerous. FIFA’s own assessors had warned that a tournament in the country would be at high risk of a terror attack, and that the health of players and fans alike could be endangered by the desert heat.
For Qatar’s emir at the time, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, winning the rights to host the tournament was a huge coup, advancing his plan to diversify the country’s gas-rich economy, wash away criticisms of its human-rights record, and position Qatar as a serious global power. But, for many international onlookers, it was hard to imagine any legitimate basis on which the country could have been selected as the strongest bidder. Suspicions abounded that the right to host the 2022 World Cup had been bought. It wasn’t until three years later that the receipts surfaced.
At the start of 2014, I was working as an investigative journalist at the Sunday Times in London when my colleague Jonathan Calvert and I were approached by a whistle-blower from inside world soccer, who had hundreds of millions of documents that laid bare the corruption of Qatar’s World Cup bid. The files centered on the activities of a wealthy construction magnate named Mohammed bin Hammam, the president of the Asian Football Confederation and a member of FIFA’s ruling executive committee, and Qatar’s most senior soccer official when the country secured its 2022 victory. There were e-mails and faxes, telephone logs and electronic messages, letters, bank slips, accounts, cash chits, flight manifests, handwritten notes, diaries, and secret reports. They revealed in detail how bin Hammam had waged a campaign of bribery and backroom deals, handing out rolls of cash and using a network of slush funds to pay millions of dollars into the bank accounts of scores of officials.
It’s a well-worn maxim of investigative journalism that you should follow the money; the trouble is that most crooks take care not to leave a paper trail. There was no such difficulty here, thanks in part to bin Hammam’s punctilious personal assistant, who frequently e-mailed officials a copy of the bank-transfer slip when he paid out a bribe on behalf of his boss, and in part to bin Hammam’s habitual courtesy: he often wrote personally to thank officials for pledging their support to Qatar shortly before or after the money hit their accounts.
We broke the news of Qatar’s campaign of bribery on the eve of the 2014 Brazil World Cup, with a run of stories that took up the first eleven pages of the Sunday Times. The revelations made headlines around the world, and prompted widespread calls for Qatar to be stripped of the tournament. But Blatter waved the evidence away. “Once again there is a sort of storm against FIFA relating to the Qatar World Cup,” he told the assembled officials in Brazil. “They want to destroy us,” he added. “They will not.” Qatar’s official World Cup committee denied that bin Hammam had played any role in its campaign. The man himself remained resolutely silent.
In 2022, the spectacle of powerful global figures refuting well-documented truths feels all too familiar, but 2014 was a more innocent time. I watched Blatter and the Qataris denying the undeniable with astonishment. Then FIFA made its next move. Back in 2012, when Calvert and I had published a story about a payment offered by Qatar to the son of a senior soccer official, FIFA had launched its own inquiry into the integrity of the country’s bid, later expanding the probe to cover all nine countries that were in the race to host the 2018 and 2022 tournaments. This was a time-honored way to kick a controversy into the long grass: while the inquiry was proceeding, FIFA had a pretext to refuse to answer questions. The investigation was still trundling on in 2014. Just after our story broke, the lead investigator, a former U.S. Attorney named Michael J. Garcia, announced that his work was complete. He later reported that there was “no evidence” of any wrongdoing by Qatar. Ever since, FIFA and Qatar have used that finding as a firewall against calls for the tournament to be reconsidered.
Calvert and I went on to publish a book, “The Ugly Game: The Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup,” which further documented the reasons for FIFA’s insistent backing of Qatar’s bid. We discovered that, in 2008, at a meeting with Blatter and the country’s then emir, bin Hammam had been personally tasked with bringing the World Cup to Qatar. (Bin Hammam didn’t respond to multiple attempts to reach him.) Giddy with hubris after his victory, bin Hammam had gone on, in 2011, to mount a campaign to replace Blatter as FIFA president, only to be accused of dishing out cash-stuffed envelopes in exchange for votes. The book revealed that the FIFA president sealed his rival’s downfall in a private deal with the Qatari royal family, promising that the country would keep the World Cup so long as bin Hammam agreed to withdraw his bid for the presidency. (Both Blatter and FIFA deny this.) So it is that the man who overcame all the odds to bring the World Cup home now lives quietly in his Doha mansion, banned for life from world football and sworn to secrecy.
For a while, it seemed that nothing was going to change. Then, one morning in May, 2015, as soccer’s élite were gathering in Zurich to reëlect Blatter for a fifth term, the news broke that the Swiss police, working with the F.B.I., had arrested seven top FIFA officials in dawn raids on the five-star Hotel Baur au Lac. For years, FIFA’s illicit practices had been shielded from investigation by the opaque carapace of Swiss law, but it turned out that the organization had made a powerful enemy. In the months after the U.S.A.’s 2022 bid was humiliatingly defeated by Qatar, the F.B.I. had set about recruiting America’s top soccer official, Chuck Blazer, as a confidential informant.