The World Cup and FIFA’s discontents

(This is the first in a series of posts this week about the World Cup, which kicks off June 12 in Brazil.)

FIFA, the international soccer governing body, is no stranger to facing serious allegations of corruption over bids, match-fixing and disorganization related to the World Cup.

But with a week and a half before the 20th World Cup kicks off in Brazil, the Lords of FIFA have been sledgehammered with concerns over all three without much time for anything but a defensive reaction.

The FixMatch-fixing is hardly a new subject in soccer, but an explosive series that began Sunday in The New York Times revealed that a FIFA investigation has concluded that several friendlies before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa were fixed by an Asian gambling syndicate. One of those matches allegedly included a June 5 friendly between the United States and Australia, which the Americans won 3-1.

Another friendly between South Africa and Guatemala was officiated by Ibrahim Chaibou, a referee from Niger reportedly hired by the syndicate and who was allegedly paid $60,000 for that game, and who also is accused of depositing $100,000 in his bank account beforehand.

“The South Africa case,” write Declan Hill and Jeré Longman for The Times, “gives an unusually detailed look at the ease with which professional gamblers can fix matches, as well as the governing body’s severe problems in policing itself and its member federations.”

They quoted a former FIFA investigator who admitted that there are no “checks and balances and no oversight” in a sport in which more than 700 “suspicious” matches were played around the world between 2008 and 2011, including World Cup qualifiers. Interpol, the international criminal police investigating organization, estimates that $700 billion is bet on soccer.

The Times reports that FIFA, which has only six full-time investigators to track match-fixing, did not launch a probe until 2012. South Africa president Jacob Zuma declined to set up a commission to look into the claims.

(Here’s Part 2 of the series published on Monday, detailing the work of Wilson Raj Perumal, who worked for the Singapore-based syndicate at the heart of FIFA’s probe.)

As that story dropped over the weekend, further allegations about another familiar tale were unfolding, regarding FIFA’s most notorious World Cup bidding process to date.

The Sunday Times of London reported that it has documents showing that former Qatari soccer official Mohammed Bin Hamann made $5 million in secret payments to help secure the awarding of the 2022 World Cup for his nation.

This was more than a hint of scandal; ever since the FIFA vote in December 2010, questions have been raised about how Qatar’s seemingly unlikely bid triumphed. Bin Hamann, who was a FIFA vice president and a former president of the Asian Football Confederation, has twice been banned for life by FIFA, which for two years has conducted an inquiry into the bids for the 2022 and 2018 World Cups, the latter to be hosted by Russia.

But the newspaper reports among the “millions of documents” it has obtained there are many that connect Bin Hamman even more strongly to efforts to influence the votes of four African FIFA executive committee members, as well as paying legal expenses for another member.

(The Sunday Times story is behind a paywall; but the BBC has summarized it here.)

There are plenty of potential fallout scenarios already being suggested, including the possibility of having another vote. A FIFA vice president said on Sunday he would favor that.

British investigative journalist Andrew Jennings has been digging into FIFA World Cup bidding for years, with his 2006 book “Foul: the Secret World of FIFA” detailing corruption allegations stemming from the awarding of the 2006 World Cup to Germany. omerta1

Jennings has turned up the heat with a new release, “Omertà: Sepp Blatter’s FIFA Organized Crime Family,” that focuses on efforts involving the mafia in Brazil to compromise the World Cup.

While the caustic Jennings has been accused at times of overreaching, his examination of FIFA’s new Code of Ethics, formed in 2012, is a timely inclusion. However, he believes, as a reviewer noted, that this code has only enhanced the power of Blatter, the longtime FIFA boss and operative, who like his predecessor João Havelange, has operated with little scrutiny and run FIFA with little transparency.

Before the 2002 World Cup, Blatter ruthlessly dispensed of his second-in-command, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, who alleged mismanagement of FIFA finances in a bid to challenge his boss for the presidency. After winning re-election, Blatter declared, “Vee haf svept avay Meestah Kleen!”

Ironically, Zen-Ruffinen allegedly offered himself up as a “fixer” before FIFA’s 2018 and 2022 World Cup votes, and identified numerous executive committee members he said were susceptible to bribes.

So these latest developments aren’t entirely surprising. But the concern is the critical mass that may be accumulating, and being brought to bear, on a continuous basis, especially because it’s close to the World Cup, FIFA’s revenue-producing monolith that’s expected to generate $4 billion in Brazil. However, it may take quite a while longer, and surely beyond the coming World Cup, for FIFA to feel legitimately nervous.

This comes just as Blatter is set to run for another term as FIFA president next year, and keep in mind internal politics here. As The Guardian noted on Monday, Blatter is believed to have voted for the U.S. as the 2022 hosts, while UEFA president Michel Platini, thought to be a potential rival to Blatter, backed the Qatar bid.

(For what it’s worth, former Manchester United legend Eric Cantona has labeled Blatter and Platini the “plague and cholera” for their various political maneuvers.)

On Monday, FIFA announced that its two-year probe into the bidding for 2018 and 2022 would be concluded by next week, and June 9 — three days before the World Cup opener between Brazil and Croatia — to be exact.

Hill, also a British investigative journalist, is the author of “The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime,” published in 2010. He says in the book that while he still loves “the Saturday-morning game between amateurs: the camaraderie and the fresh smell of grass . . . the professional game leaves me cold.”

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