Soccer: FIFA board veteran seeks swift Qatar probe after new graft claim
One of the longest-serving board members of soccer’s governing body, FIFA, called for a swift conclusion to a probe into Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup after more allegations of impropriety. Qatar denied wrongdoing.
The U.K.’s Sunday Times said on Sunday it was passed millions of documents by what it described as a senior FIFA official. It alleged they showed former FIFA vice president Mohamed bin Hammam, a Qatari, paid more than $5 million to soccer officials in Africa before the desert emirate, smaller than Connecticut, was chosen to host the 2022 tournament. Bin Hammam said he wouldn’t comment via phone message.
Since the December 2010 choice of Qatar, which beat competition from the U.S., Australia, South Korea and Japan, allegations have dogged the Arab country and several officials. Michael Garcia, a former U.S. federal prosecutor, has been investigating the claims for more than a year. Qatari organizers said on Sunday that Bin Hammam played no role in their successful bid and that they’d “always upheld the highest standard of ethics and integrity.”
“I only want one thing: that everything appears as quickly as possible so everyone knows who are the people who received money and who did not, because at the moment everyone seems to be think that everyone in FIFA is guilty of something,” FIFA board member Michel D’Hooghe, who took part in that vote, said by phone from Belgium.
Qatar’s then-Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani clutched the World Cup trophy following the announcement from FIFA President Sepp Blatter that its bid was successful. The victory has been the high point of the country’s efforts to use sports to raise its profile. Qatar owns French soccer champion Paris Saint-Germain and recently launched a global sports television network.
“We are cooperating fully with Mr. Garcia’s ongoing investigation and remain totally confident that any objective inquiry will conclude we won the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup fairly,” Qatar’s World Cup committee said in a statement.
Zurich-based FIFA’s reputation has been battered by corruption cases in recent years. Two members were suspended from taking part in the World Cup selection process after they offered to sell their votes to undercover reporters. In 2011, Bin Hammam withdrew as the only candidate to challenge Blatter for FIFA’s presidency after being accused of offering bribes to Caribbean voters.
Bin Hammam was later expelled from the organization and continues to deny the claims. Last year FIFA’s honorary president, Joao Havelange, and two other officials quit after the organization said they took kickbacks from its now-defunct marketing partner.
Bin Hammam said the Times’ “stories end nowhere,” without elaborating.
“Frankly there is nothing to respond about,” he said via phone message. “Let me enjoy my new life.”
FIFA referred questions to Garcia’s office, which didn’t respond to an email for comment. The Sunday Times said Bin Hammam’s attorney declined to comment.
The soccer federation for Australia, which was eliminated in the first round of voting after receiving just one vote, said on Sunday it was closely following Garcia’s investigation.
“We note these are very serious allegations,” it said in a statement. “We have been monitoring FIFA’s investigation for many months and will be keenly interested in the response. At this stage we can only continue to encourage a thorough process that uncovers all the facts in a timely way.”
The latest allegations center around alleged payments to several African officials. They threaten to overshadow FIFA’s June 10-11 annual meeting in Sao Paulo. Blatter said he would ask members whether they wanted him to run for a fifth term at the meeting, which ends just before the June 12 start of the Brazil World Cup.
D’Hooghe, a 68-year-old medical doctor from Belgium, has been on FIFA’s executive committee for 26 years and heads its medical committee. He said the allegations tarnish the soccer body’s image and that of the officials who work there, and do “many good things indeed.”
“I can tell you on my honor I never received money, nobody ever offered me money and nobody has ever asked me for money,” he said.
FIFA has 209 member associations, more than the countries affiliated with the United Nations. D’Hooghe said countries don’t always view “morality and ethics” in the same way. D’Hooghe said he couldn’t vouch for colleagues because he only sat alongside them for eight hours a year, at three or four meetings.
Garcia has been traveling the world inquiring into the competing World Cup bids, including Russia’s that secured the 2018 tournament, and officials who voted. D’Hooghe said the process has been thorough.
“I had an excellent impression about him. He’s professional and serious. I was grateful to go there and tell him what my experience there,” he said. “FIFA does so many good things indeed, so if this is true this is a shame for people who are concerned by this.”
Qatar’s claims of Bin Hammam having no role either “official or unofficial” with its bid run counter to interviews given by bid leaders in 2009 and 2010 when they referred to him as “the biggest asset.”
“Mohamed bin Hammam has been a very good mentor to us,” bid chairman Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani told the World Football Insider website in November 2010. “He’s been very helpful in advising us how to go about with our messaging and can have the biggest impact.”
The choice of Qatar has also proved controversial for other reasons. FIFA probably will move the tournament about six months earlier to avoid the scorching summer heat in the desert nation, a measure that would require leagues across the world to change their calendars. TV networks like Fox in the U.S., which have paid millions of dollars for the right to broadcast the event, will also be affected.
Qatar is also being forced to change its labor conditions after human rights groups said the current situation has led to the death of migrant workers, mainly from South Asia.
With assistance from Robert Tuttle in Doha, Qatar, and James Paton in Sydney.