While protests in Brazil overshadow the on-pitch spectacle to come, football’s Zurich-based ruling body FIFA has been facing harsh criticism for its choice of host countries for the 2018 and 2022 editions: Russia and Qatar.
The association has admitted it made a mistake by planning to hold the 2022 tournament in the scorching summer months in Qatar. At the same time, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and involvement in eastern Ukraine has led to condemnation and sanctions from Western powers.
The timing could not have been worse for FIFA executives, led by the body's Swiss president, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, who were already battling to contain the fall-out of violent public protests in the build-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, which kicks off on June 12.
The roots of public unease about the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar lie in the opaque voting system employed four years ago to select these countries.
Politicians, celebrities and royalty lobbied FIFA’s 24-person executive committee hard to secure their votes. The final decision for both Russia and Qatar was announced after a secret ballot and was greeted with cat-calls of derision and allegations of foul play and bribery.
“We cannot expect only flawless societies to host such tournaments. If we only want perfect democracies to host the World Cup, then we have to construct facilities in Iceland and keep them in place,” Jens Andersen, international director of pressure group Play the Game, told swissinfo.ch.
“It is very fair that Russia and Qatar got the chance to host the World Cup. But there are a number of indications that the bidding process was corrupt and that the final decision to award the tournament to these two countries was not fair and square.”
He added that the fact that the tournament went to the two countries with the poorest technical reports was “suspicious”.
World Cup hosts
In December 2010, FIFA announced that Russia would host the 2018 World Cup tournament, followed by Qatar in 2022.
The press, mainly British, met the announcement with allegations of bribes being offered for votes.
France Football magazine ran an article detailing meetings between then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the current President of European football’s governing body UEFA Michel Platini and Qatari money men days before Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup.
The allegations were loud enough to prompt the head of the German football federation, Theo Zwanziger, to call for FIFA to reconsider appointing the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
But FIFA has stood firm against such criticism, maintaining that the two tournaments will go ahead as planned in the respective host countries.
In a recent interview with Swiss public television, Sepp Blatter admitted it was a mistake to award the 2002 World Cup to Qatar in the summer.
“The technical report of Qatar indicated that it was too hot in summer but the FIFA executive committee, with quite a large majority, decided it would be played in Qatar,” he said.
FIFA issued a press release after the interview to say Blatter’s comments did not mean it was a mistake to award the tournament to Qatar, just that it was wrong to play in such high temperatures.
Blatter denied in the interview that the Word Cup tournaments were bought by countries.
Culture, not money
FIFA has always denied allegations of corruption and maintains that the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments was made on purely footballing grounds. Furthermore, FIFA is committed to staging its prestigious tournament all around the globe, thus boosting football in all corners of the world.
“The World Cup will discover new cultures in new regions, and that’s something I’m delighted about,” Blatter said in an interview on FIFA’s website in 2010, just after the 2018 and 2022 hosts had been decided.
“The sporting media don’t always appreciate the social or cultural importance of awarding the World Cup finals to a country. They just think about penalties, corners, refereeing and money. But, as I’ve already said, this decision wasn’t about making money.”
But the behind-closed-doors nature of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup venue votes has sparked a chain of criticism aimed at Russia and Qatar.
Both host nations have been widely criticised for state-backed homophobic policies, while workers have been dying under apparent poor conditions constructing the tournament infrastructure in Qatar.
Even two United States Senators intervened to try to get FIFA to take the tournament away from Russia following the escalation of violence in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.
“The 2018 FIFA World Cup will take place in Russia as announced. FIFA has not had any considerations to the contrary,” the FIFA press office told swissinfo.ch.
“FIFA suggests that outrageous misbehaviour by member states does not matter because such decisions are irrelevant to soccer,” Senator Dan Coates said after FIFA replied negatively to his letter calling for Russia to be stripped of the World Cup.
Asking for trouble
FIFA and the chosen host countries only have themselves to blame for the outpouring of negative sentiment, according to Andersen.
“If these countries had really been meticulously fair during the bidding process, it would not have been unreasonable of them not to expect such negative public attention,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“FIFA’s notoriously bad track record with regard to transparency has added to this negativity. When the global limelight shines on the festivities of such tournaments, then the host nation must also accept a global dialogue of less acceptable aspects.”
FIFA has been taking the mounting criticism of its operations on board, not just in relation to electing World Cup hosts but also to the way it chooses its presidents. Every recent presidential election has been greeted by the media with allegations of further bribery.
In response, football’s governing body set up an ethics taskforce, including the Independent Governance Committee (IGC), headed by former US FBI investigator Michael Garcia. The IGC is investigating the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids and is due to report its findings later this year.
“If FIFA is to emerge from the scandals of recent years, it must now produce a convincing and transparent answer to any issues relating to hosting decisions, either to confirm that the suspicions are, sadly, well founded or to demonstrate that they are groundless,” Swiss law professor Mark Pieth commented in a FIFA-commissioned report that was published in April.
“If allegations are confirmed, FIFA must ensure that the consequences are meaningful.”
Turning a new leaf?
In addition to creating new committees to stress test the ethical nature of its operations, FIFA changed the World Cup venue voting system in 2011 to make it theoretically harder to influence votes by foul play. From now on the executive committee will pass a short list of venues to the 208-member Congress to vote on.
This system would make it harder for anyone wanting to influence the decision with bribe money to buy off such a large electorate.
The Swiss parliament is also set this year to debate new laws that would remove the exemption of sporting organisations from criminal prosecution if they engage in bribery.
But Andersen is unconvinced that FIFA can change its spots and clean up its act overnight.
“I’m not very optimistic that this will happen, but the genuine public and political dialogue on corruption in sport does give me some hope in the long run. With this type of sustained pressure, FIFA may eventually decide that it is too risky to stage events in this way,” he said.