Pressure is building on FIFA to determine if Qatar bribed officials to win hosting rights to the 2022 World Cup.
After declining to comment about allegations that surfaced last week, the president of the world’s football governing body has finally broken his silence, taking a shot at the Gulf country’s critics.
The official’s comments follow fresh reports published by the Sunday Times that Qatar offered discounted natural gas to Thailand in exchange for its support. The newspaper previously alleged that Qatar bribed FIFA executive committee members with some $5 million in payments to help secure votes.
In response, major World Cup sponsors – including Adidas, BP, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Hyundai/Kia, Sony and Visa – have this week expressed concern about the renewed corruption allegations surrounding Qatar’s bid. Another major sponsor, the UAE-based Emirates, has remained silent.
In separate statements, the companies argued that the accusations hurt the tournament’s image and demanded a full investigation – something FIFA argues is well underway.
US lawyer Michael Garcia, FIFA’s ethics chief, was due to wrap up his inquiry this week into the bidding processes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments, won by Russia and Qatar, respectively. He’s scheduled to submit his findings in mid-July.
That timeline means Garcia will not examine the Sunday Times’ allegations, which the newspaper said is based on “millions” of pages worth of documents.
The BBC reports that FIFA will rule on the validity of the 2018 and 2022 bids this fall, at which point the “matter will be closed,” according to Blatter.
If Garcia uncovers concrete proof of bribery and calls for a re-vote, FIFA vice-president Jim Boyce has said he’d support a recommendation to re-run the selection process.
Many have seized on Boyce’s comments to suggest that there’s now a real possibility that Qatar could lose the rights to host the World Cup.
For its part, Qatar’s World Cup organizing body, the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, has said it “vehemently” denies all allegations of wrongdoing. It has expressed confidence that any investigation will find it won the hosting rights fairly.
According to Reuters, it’s incredibly rare for World Cup sponsors – who collectively paid FIFA more than $180 million last year – to weigh in on such sensitive topics.
The fact that they’re suddenly expressing concern likely reflects worries that the corruption allegations would reflect negatively on their brands.
There could also be some lingering disappointment that the tournament was awarded to the Gulf country in the first place, according to an analyst quoted by the news agency:
“None of the sponsors would want it to be held in Qatar,” said David Peters, managing director of marketing company Dentsu Aegis Network Sport & Entertainment.
“FIFA haven’t given a great deal of consideration to sponsors. The sport is so big, they are less beholden than other sports,” he added.
Compared to the other bidding nations – Australia, Japan, South Korea and the US – Qatar has a relatively undeveloped market for consumer brands, Reuters notes.
Meanwhile, some human rights activists expressed dismay that it was bribery allegations, rather than documented abuses of migrant workers, that has caused so many to reconsider Qatar’s hosting rights:
— Nicholas McGeehan (@NcGeehan) June 9, 2014
Meanwhile, Amnesty International released a poll of some 13,000 football fans across the world that found 73 percent of respondents who wanted FIFA to consider moving the 2022 World Cup on human rights grounds.
For its part, Amnesty is not calling for Qatar to lose its hosting rights. Instead, the organization said it believes there is still time for the country to change its policies and improve its human rights record.
Note: This article has been updated after clarifying that he would review the allegations made by the Sunday Times, which were based on material he said “has been available to us for some time,” according to the Wall Street Journal.