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FIFA: Winner of the world cup of corruption?


A demonstrator during an anti-FIFA protest in Brazil on May 27, 2014. (Eraldo Peres/AP)

On Dec. 2, 2010, a balding, professorial man named Sepp Blatter stood before an audience in Zurich and pulled out a card bearing the name “Qatar.” The president of FIFA, arguably the globe’s most important sporting body, had just made an announcement that would disappoint, among others, Prince William, David Beckham, Morgan Freeman and Bill Clinton.

Every one them had pressured, schmoozed and lobbied FIFA’s 24-member executive committee to select their countries as host of soccer’s World Cup.

But instead, the executive committee tapped Russia for the 2018 slot. And for 2022, 14 of its voting members chose Qatar, the only country deemed a “high-risk” option.

Concerns about Qatar are legion. Summer temperatures can climb to 120 degrees, which FIFA inspectors called a “potential health risk.” Qatar has an abhorrent human-rights record augmented by horror stories about working and living conditions among an army of migrant laborers involved in the construction of 12 stadiums within a 20-mile radius. Nor has Qatar ever qualified for a World Cup.

FIFA stands for Fédération Internationale de Football Association, and its selections of Russia and Qatar have drawn criticism for years — along with whispers about unsavory wheeling and dealing.

“For some members of the committee, the attractiveness of the Russian bid was obvious: the kickbacks given to the voting committee,” reported the Telegraph in 2010. “Sometimes cash, sometimes payment-in-kind, such as an expensive month’s holiday for two.”

Over the weekend, two explosive reports went well beyond whispers.

The Qatar choice was the target in a story Sunday that filled 11 pages of London’s Sunday Times. (The story itself is behind a paywall. A detailed description of the story is available on the BBC Web site.)

The paper said it had obtained and reviewed millions of documents that allegedly show how former FIFA executive committee member Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar — who was banned from soccer for life in 2011 for attempted bribery — bought the World Cup.

According to the report, bin Hammam funneled $5 million to soccer officials so they would support Qatar’s bid in a sprawling act of corruption that spanned the globe, but focused primarily on Africa.

For example, John Muinjo, the president of the Namibian Football Association allegedly dispatched a note to bin Hammam saying he’d back Qatar if “assisted with a once-off financial assistance to the tune of U$50,000.” According to the Sunday Times, Bin Hammam agreed — though, last week, Muinjo said the money had never reached his account.

Qatar’s World Cup officials denied the allegations to the Guardian, saying it has “always upheld the highest standard of ethics and integrity.”

Next up was the New York Times. It, too, took a swing at FIFA on Sunday. The paper got hold of an internal FIFA investigative report that allegedly showed how match fixing had corrupted South Africa’s World Cup in 2010.

“It provides extensive details of the clever and brazen ways that fixers apparently manipulated ‘at least five matches and possibly more’ in South Africa ahead of the last World Cup,” according to the paper.

Corruption in international sporting events is nothing new. Russia’s Olympic Games in Sochi were called the “most corrupt ever,  and it’s believed hundreds of millions of dollars disappeared in preparations for the Games. Allegations of corruption also marred Beijing’s 2008 Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee is also no stranger to bribery allegations. The Olympics landed in Salt Lake City after the Salt Lake Organizing Committee showered millions on Olympic officials, paying for vacations, plastic surgery and Super Bowl tickets. Nagano, Japan, threw a $240,000 party for Olympic committee members before it locked up the 1998 Winter Games.

But in some ways, the recent revelations of FIFA’s allegedly corrupt selection process shine a harsher light on it than any international sporting scandal before. That’s because the decision to give Qatar the World Cup comes with a profound human cost.

Qatar, which rights groups say is unequipped both environmentally and culturally to host the games, is a small, absolute monarchy that juts out of the Arabian Peninsula like a left thumb. Migrant workers there, who swell Qatar’s population from 200,000 to many times that, are governed by a draconian system called “kafala.”

Under kafala, which pervades Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and a number of other smaller Middle East states, employers have total authority over workers. They dictate whether a worker can go or stay and sometimes confiscate passports, all but imprisoning workers. “We are trapped in a nightmare,” one migrant laborer working on World Cup preparations told the Daily Record in April. “We are treated like animals, not human beings.”

The system played a significant role in the tragic deaths of nearly 1,000 migrant workers constructing World Cup facilities. Working in crushing heat, hundreds died of unexplained illnesses, including “sudden cardiac death,” which killed 246, while 28 more killed themselves, according to a report released by Qatar two weeks ago.

In the days after the report’s release, FIFA did some backpedaling.

Blatter, who four years ago anointed Qatar, admitted the choice was a “mistake.” He added: “You know, one makes a lot of mistakes in life.”

He said the problem with Qatar was apparent from the beginning — hot summers. “But despite that the executive committee decided, with quite a big majority, that the tournament would be in Qatar,” he said.

If the allegations are true, World Cup officials said Sunday, there may be a re-vote for the 2022 World Cup host. “I certainly as a member of the executive co would have absolutely no problem whatsoever if the recommendation was for a re-vote,” FIFA Vice President Jim Boyce said.

Others had harsher words. The former British director of public prosecutions had this assessment of FIFA: It’s “a bit of a cesspit.”

Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.

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