World Cup likely to stay in Qatar despite new bribery accusations in US

David Conn
Photograph: Andrea de Silva/Reuters

The 2022 World Cup is highly unlikely to be moved from Qatar despite the latest criminal indictment by the US Department of Justice accusing three senior Fifa officials of receiving bribes for voting in favour of the Gulf state hosting the tournament.

The indictment, the latest in the long-running US prosecution of football officials for alleged corruption, accuses Nicolás Leoz, the Paraguayan then president of Conmebol, South American football’s governing body, and the former Brazil federation president Ricardo Teixeira of being paid bribes to vote for Qatar at the decisive Fifa executive committee (exco) meeting in December 2010. A third then very senior member of the exco under the former president Sepp Blatter, who is not named but is identifiable as Julio Grondona, the then president of Argentina’s FA, is also accused of being paid to vote for Qatar, but Grondona, who died in 2014, was never criminally charged.

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The indictment is also explosive for accusing the Russian authorities, for the first time, of paying bribes for votes in favour of their successful bid to host the 2018 World Cup, which was decided at the same fateful Fifa exco meeting. The document alleges in some detail that Jack Warner, then the long-serving president of the confederation for North and Central American and Caribbean football (Concacaf), “was promised and received bribe payments totalling $5m” to cast his vote for Russia.

Another then member of the Fifa exco, the former president of the Guatemala FA Rafael Salguero, is accused of being promised a $1m bribe to vote for Russia. Salguero pleaded guilty to multiple corruption charges in the US in 2016, and admitted then that he was offered a bribe to vote for a certain 2018 World Cup host, but the name of the country was redacted from his plea document and he said he never received the money. Warner, facing multiple corruption charges, has denied any wrongdoing and for years has been contesting extradition from his home island of Trinidad.

Alexei Sorokin, the chief executive of Russia’s 2018 World Cup, denied the allegations, as did Qatar’s supreme committee overseeing the major stadium construction and preparations to host the tournament due to start in November 2022. Led by the ruling Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Qatar remains determined to host the World Cup.

In a statement, the supreme committee said it would fight any accusation that it did not win the votes legitimately. “Despite years of false claims, evidence has never been produced to demonstrate that Qatar won the rights to host the Fifa World Cup 2022 unethically or by means that contravened Fifa’s strict bidding rules,” the statement said.

“The supreme committee maintains that it strictly adhered to all rules and regulations for the 2018/2022 FIFA World Cup bidding process and any claim to the contrary is baseless and will be fiercely contested.”

Under Gianni Infantino, voted president after Blatter was banned from football in December 2015 for breaches of Fifa’s ethics code, football’s world governing body has condemned all proven previous corruption and is itself pursuing a compensation claim against its accused former officials.

Fifa, pointing out that it had been accorded “victim status” in the US criminal proceedings, said in a statement that it “supports all investigations into alleged acts of criminal wrongdoing regarding either domestic or international football competitions, and will continue to provide full cooperation to law enforcement officials investigating such matters.

“Should any acts of criminal wrongdoing by football officials be established, the individuals in question should be subject to penal sanctions.”

Senior officials say that Fifa will genuinely take the allegations against the organisation’s old guard very seriously and consider all the implications – but it can be inferred now that moving the tournament from Qatar is highly improbable. Two of those accused of receiving bribes, Leoz and Grondona, have died, so cannot be found guilty. Teixeira, the former son-in-law of the Fifa president before Blatter, João Havelange, has not been extradited to face any of the multiple corruption charges levelled against him by the Department of Justice, so any trial must be considered unlikely.

The indictment is also light on detail in relation to the alleged bribes for Qatar, an allegation first made in a Brooklyn court in late 2017 during the corruption trial of three other former South American football officials. Alejandro Burzaco, a TV executive who had pleaded guilty to paying bribes, testified that Grondona had once told him that he was owed $1m by Teixeira because he had voted for Qatar. Grondona also said, according to Burzaco, that it was “not a private thing” that he, Teixeira and Leoz, who was also accused of prodigious corruption by the US authorities, were voting for Qatar.

Two and a half years on, the indictment alleges nothing more than: “The defendant Ricardo Teixeira, Nicolás Leoz and [Grondona, described as Co-Conspirator #1], were offered and received bribe payments in exchange for their votes in favour of Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup.”

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Even if this case were to reach trial, following an unpredictable delay in the court system owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, and even if Teixeira were found guilty – he has always denied corruption allegations – it would have to be shown that any bribes came from the official Qatar bid and were decisive in sending the tournament to Qatar. Qatar were more than three votes ahead in all four rounds of voting for the 2022 host country.

For more than nine years since, Qatar has spent billions building seven stadiums, reconfiguring another and constructing vast infrastructure to host the World Cup. Exceptionally solid, proven reasons would be needed, in good time, if the tournament were to be moved, and clearly the supreme committee denies any suggestion that it should.