June 3, 2014

Time to Make An Example

Given the presence of two news stories over the weekend highlighting corruption in international soccer, the time has come for FIFA to act and the place to do it is Qatar.

More to the point, it's time to rip the 2022 World Cup from Qatar and place it somewhere else.  And fast.

Neither story comes as shocking news to those who follow such things, but they bolster the perception (and reality) that international soccer is rife with corruption and FIFA is unwilling, or unable, to do anything about it.

First, from Sunday's New York Times, comes an article (first in a series - never a good sign) about match fixing by gamblers, particularly in international friendlies leading up to the last World Cup in South Africa:
A soccer referee named Ibrahim Chaibou walked into a bank in a small South African city carrying a bag filled with as much as $100,000 in $100 bills, according to another referee traveling with him. The deposit was so large that a bank employee gave Mr. Chaibou a gift of commemorative coins bearing the likeness of Nelson Mandela.
Later that night in May 2010, Mr. Chaibou refereed an exhibition match between South Africa and Guatemala in preparation for the World Cup, the world’s most popular sporting event. Even to the casual fan, his calls were suspicious — he called two penalties for hand balls even though the ball went nowhere near the players’ hands.
In some ways, the headline - that "Fixed Soccer Matches Cast Shadow Over World Cup" - oversells things a bit.  Friendlies are ripe for that kind of shenanigans because few people really care all that much about the outcome.  To use a recent example, ultimately whether the US beat Turkey 2-1 or 10-1 on Sunday isn't as important as being able to evaluate how certain players played, worked together, etc.  Bizarrely, I'm more likely to watch a friendly on the TiVo if I already know the result for that very reason.

Which is to say, I doubt it would be nearly as easy to buy someone off for a World Cup match, or any match that actually meant anything.  Not saying it can't happen, but I don't think we can extrapolate from one situation to the other directly.

Nonetheless, the match fixing is pretty brazen, as witnessed by Chaibou and his bag of cash (probably affixed with an over sized dollar sign, just to make the image complete).  It feeds a perception that FIFA is fundamentally corrupt.

A perception that was reinforced by a story broken by the Sunday Times over the weekend (reported via Deadspin) that a former FIFA executive paid out bribes to secure the 2022 World Cup for his home country, Qatar:
Bin Hammam was able to secure votes with 'lavish junkets' and straight-up cash. According to the Times at least one of these junkets with money goodie-bags was actually paid for by the Qatar bid. In 2009 bin Hammam hosted three key voters, and 35 other soccer officials in Doha, all on Qatar's dime.
In addition to these junkets, Hammam also made payments totalling up to $200,000 to accounts 'controlled by the presidents of 30 African football associations' who were key to securing a pro-Qatar vote. Payments were made from 10 slush funds and bin Hammam's daughter's account.
All in all, more than $5 million was involved.  And, as with the match fixing, it was fairly brazen, with (for example) the head of the Namibian Football Association demanding $50,000 (US, naturally) "to build football pitches."

The awarding of the World Cup to Qatar was greeted with scoffs and talk of bribery when it was first announced.  The country has no real history on the international soccer scene and staging the tournament in its traditional mid-summer time frame in the Middle East borders on suicidal.  Even FIFA head honcho recently told Swiss television that awarding the Cup to Qatar was a "mistake."

Given all that, FIFA is in a good position to take quick, decisive action to show that it won't put up with that kind of shenanigans - take the 2022 World Cup away from Qatar.  Reopen the bid process or hand it directly to a country that can host it in spite of the shortened time frame.  Would I like to see it be the United States?  Of course.  That would also help deflect some of the criticism of the soon to begin tournament in Brazil, namely that there's a lot of money being spent on big stadiums that won't see much (if any) use once the tournament is over.  The US has lots of large stadia that can host soccer, with even more coming on line in the next few years.  And don't forget, the 1994 World Cup held here is still the best attended in history.

But that would be a secondary benefit to FIFA finally making a move to get its house in order.  I hope it will happen, but I'm skeptical.

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