Following his Special Report into Qatar 2022, Philippe Auclair sinks his teeth into FIFA's failed attempts to put the controversy to bed...
“Qatar will host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. Voilà.”
Sepp Blatter’s statement at the conclusion of last week ExCo in Zurich seemed unequivocal enough. This irritating matter would be laid to rest. The football world could now concern itself with more pressing matters, such as the forthcoming 2014 World Cup tournament, the build-up to which hasn’t exactly been trouble-free so far. Once the circus has left Brazil, there’ll be time, plenty of it, to assess the consequences of what the FIFA president presented as a fait accompli. Well, perhaps; and perhaps not.
It is hard to remember another meeting of the FIFA Executive Committee that had been preceded by such relentless attention by the world media. For months now, the snowball had been gathering pace down an increasingly steep hill, gaining yet more impetus when, shortly before the Zurich meeting, the Guardian newspaper published a report on the appalling conditions which the migrant workers who live – and die – in Qatar had to face when they arrived in the emirate. Item 25.2 on the ExCo agenda (‘2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar™: period of the competition’), which should have been broached at the end of the meeting, shot up the agenda, to the extent that it seemed that nothing else would be discussed, because nothing else was worth discussing in the present circumstances.
There wasn’t much that was new in that Guardian report, as readers of this column will know. ITUC, the world’s largest trade union confederation, had been campaigning for well over a year to highlight the plight of the largely Nepalese and Indian workforce without whom the 2022 World Cup infrastructure could not be built. Numerous official representations had already been made to FIFA and to the Qatari authorities.
ITUC even called for the 2 December 2010 vote to be re-run if drastic measures were not taken – and immediately put to effect – to put an end to what it called “modern-day slavery” in Qatar, where a sponsorship system, the kafala, effectively binds employees to employers in such a way that the former enjoy close to no labour rights, and the latter can exploit them without fear of censure or punishment.
No, none of this was new, or could have escaped FIFA’s attention. Or UEFA’s. In May of this year, activists had tried to pass on a petition to the European Confederation and its president Michel Platini, then gathered for their Congress in London; the same Michel Platini who suddenly woke up in Zurich last week to stress that discussing the switch to winter of the 2022 World Cup should be pushed aside for the time being, given the gravity of the human rights situation in Qatar. It may be that Qatar’s most vocal advocate had been badly briefed or had been given poor advice. It may be that the lack of public concern made this an issue that could be laid aside without incurring criticism. This has certainly changed.
The response of a “deeply concerned” FIFA to the furore – proposing a “courtesy visit” to the Emir of Qatar – has received a scathing reply from ITUC. It is “totally inadequate” and “fails to put in place any plan to stop more workers dying” (ITUC estimates that, at the current rate, 4,000 mostly young men will have lost their lives by 2022). The organisation’s general secretary Sharan Burrow added: “The settlement of this global dispute is dependent on actions by FIFA and the political will of the Qatari authorities, which are still absent. FIFA’s offer is an insult to the bereaved families.” Still, as Blatter put it: ‘Voilà’.
But it is not just one fire that FIFA and its president had to try and control. The human rights question may have taken precedence in public opinion, but flames were also flickering elsewhere, if less spectacularly, starting with the question of the ‘winter switch’ which, as widely anticipated, has been kicked into touch for the time being, with Blatter set to appoint a task force which will consult all manners of stakeholders before presenting a report on the feasibility of such a move.
When? All we know is that it’ll be before 2015 and the next FIFA presidential election. Many drew the lazy conclusion that it amounted to little but a manufactured process at the end of which FIFA will be able to rubber-stamp what amounts to an unprecedented upheaval of the domestic and international football calendar, at every level, in every country in the world. In a word: chaos.
Firstly, the opposition to the switch is not the English Premier League’s quixotic preserve. The opinions of its chief executive Richard Scudamore (who, contrary to some reports, has yet to be invited to join this task force) are – privately - shared by almost all of his colleagues within the association of European Professional Football Leagues; as they are, too, by numerous other non-European leagues and FAs, in North, Central and South America, Africa (especially Maghreb countries) and Asia. It is not old Europe versus the rest of the world, as partisans of the switch would have it to claim a kind of moral high ground, which, looked at more closely, resembles a mire.
It should also have been noticed that the man who will head this task force, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, is no friend of the Qataris. The Bahraini defeated Qatar’s preferred candidate, Yousuf al-Serkal, to gain the Asian Confederation’s presidency in May of this year, and prevented Hasan al-Thawadi, the leader of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, from being elected to the Executive Committee of FIFA. Pre-judging the conclusions of his commission, when no one knows yet who will be asked to join it, is, to say the least, premature.
Nor will the issues regarding the legality of the switch to winter be swept away so easily, despite Blatter’s repeated claim that the World Cup was only ‘expected’ to take place in June and July. Not quite: it is ‘scheduled’ to take place in June and July. All bidding countries had to submit accommodation details – for June and July. FIFA’s technical report, which it is true a majority of ExCo members chose to ignore or didn’t bother to read, specifically refers to June and July. At the very least someone, somewhere, will have to pay a huge amount of money in compensation.
Be it to broadcasters (who’ve already purchased the rights of the 2018 and 2022 competitions), for whom a winter World Cup is of lesser value than a summer tournament, to the bidders who wasted millions promoting their case on a false pretence and, not least – should they be stripped of the World Cup - to the Qataris, who have reiterated their desire to welcome the competition in the summer, and find themselves pushed into a tighter and tighter corner by Blatter’s insistence that June and July is no longer a viable option. They know that, should they make a formal request to have the competition’s dates moved to October and November (the most realistic option, even though the idea of a World Cup being played in late spring is gaining ground in some quarters), they risk opening a legal Pandora’s Box.
And there’s of course a subject that wasn’t discussed at the ExCo, but which will have been in the minds of all those who attended it: Michael Garcia’s investigation into the bidding and award processes for both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which is entering a new phase, now that the ISL dossier has been dealt with. Garcia, the Chief Investigator of FIFA’s Ethics Committee, landed in London on 9 October; London, the first stage of a kind of ‘road show’ which will take him to all the bidding countries bar Russia, where he is deemed persona non grata following his role in the successful prosecution of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who was convicted of terrorism-related charges in November 2011 and is now serving a 25-year jail term in the USA.
To some, naturally, this initiative will seem meaningless, an empty gesture which aims at creating a few headlines before coming up with... nothing. To those doubters, his mission is less concerned with investigation than exoneration. If he has lit that particular fire, it is so that FIFA can extinguish it more easily, turn round and say: “See? We did what we had to do, we looked, but we found nothing.”
Here again, the cynics might be in for a shock. There was no need for Garcia to attract attention in such a way. When I’d met him for the first time, back in February of this year, he’d told me: “I’ll go to the end.” I saw no reason to doubt him then, and see even less reasons to doubt him now. Sources close to the investigation all agree that significant leads have been identified; to say what they are now could jeopardise the process, hence Garcia’s reluctance to go into specifics, though it is those specifics that he’ll discussing face-to-face with football officials well into 2014. Perhaps it is worth remembering what Sepp Blatter said in November 2011: “I can tell you that Qatar hasn’t finished being a subject of preoccupation in the football world.” A year on, those words have acquired even more weight. The preoccupation lingers, even more questions are being asked, whilst the answers are as evasive as ever.
- - -