England’s World Cup bid team uncovered a host of corruption allegations at the top of world football after using ex-MI6 officers and overseas diplomats in a spying campaign against Russia during the battle to host the 2018 tournament, according to new claims.
In a tale of international intrigue, the English bid employed private security firms and a web of international contacts while the Russian leader Vladimir Putin called in a “select group of oligarchs” to make sure their bid succeeded. The tit-for-tat methods employed by the rival camps are revealed in a document released by the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee.
Roman Abramovich, the chairman of Chelsea FC, was personally given the task of using his wealth and status in world football to bring the 2018 World Cup to Russia, according to a 13-page dossier compiled by reporters for The Sunday Times.
“Roman was absolutely integral to the Russian bid,” an ex-MI6 source told the newspaper. “I remember seeing him attending private meetings with [the Fifa chief] Sepp Blatter in South Africa and thinking to myself, ‘We don’t do that, so we are f***ed’.” He added: “Roman was very visible. Any suggestion that he paid money, I don’t know. The way he operates you’d never find out.”
The newspaper’s dossier includes new claims of bribes to Fifa officials and illicit vote-swapping. It said that the bid team did not outline some of their concerns to a Fifa anti-corruption probe because they were concerned about being sued. Private ex-intelligence investigators carried out surveillance on the eight other rival bidding nations for the 2018 World Cup, paid for by sponsors and associates of the bid team, according to the document.
Britain’s embassies abroad were also used to collect information that was fed onto an encrypted database. Embassies tracked the movements of the Russia 2018 bid team as they travelled the world lobbying voters and provided information on the activities of two former members of the Fifa executive committee, the document said.
Russia started a corrupt attempt to influence the outcome of the 2018 World Cup in mid-2010 after Vladimir Putin became personally involved in the campaign fearing humiliation in the vote, according to the submission. The spying operation focused on Russia which the bid team feared was conducting its own surveillance operation on the English bid.
The security services advised the team on its own anti-spying measures which included sweeping rooms for bugs and locking up phones in lead boxes when they met power-brokers who would decide the destination of the World Cup, the document said.
Despite the backing of David Cameron, David Beckham and Prince William, the England campaign ended with a defeat to Russia, while Qatar won the secret ballot for the 2022 tournament.
A spokesman for Mr Abramovich told the newspaper there was nothing “untoward” about his involvement in the Russia bid, according to the document. The spokesman was not available for comment on Sunday.
The newspaper said that Qatar and Russia agreed to vote for each other after brokering a deal over a huge gas extraction project in Siberia. “The bid was never going to win because of the corruption on the other side,” according to an ex-MI6 source quoted in the newspaper’s document. “It was the scale of the defeat that was the shock.”
Details of the extent of the covert operation came as part of a series of new allegations of corruption involving some of the most senior figures of the game. They followed accusations of a Fifa whitewash after it conducted its own investigation but refused to publish a full account of its findings.
A summary of the investigation by the US district attorney Michael Garcia released by Fifa last month cleared the Qatar and Russia bids of wrongdoing. Mr Garcia challenged Fifa’s response to his full report and accused it of containing “numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts”.
The English bid’s database included claims that the Russian bid team gave Michel Platini, the head of Uefa, a painting by Picasso from the vaults of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg in return for his vote for Russia, according to the document. The painting was said to have been handed over by Viacheslav Koloskov, a former member of Fifa’s executive committee. The database was also said to contain intelligence that Mr Koloskov gave another painting to Michel d’Hooghe, the Belgian representative.
He admitted in 2011 that he received a painting from his former colleague Mr Koloskov after a lunch in Bruges and said he put the “absolutely ugly” painting in his attic after failing to give it away to his secretary. Mr Platini has denied receiving a painting from anyone involved in the Russia 2018 bid.
The document also includes fresh claims against Franz Beckenbauer, the former German footballing great and administrator, who is one of five current or former Fifa executives under investigation as a result of the inquiry by Mr Garcia. The England bid team received intelligence that two consultants were seeking fees of millions of pounds which would guarantee the vote of Mr Beckenbauer, then the German representative for Fifa, who was alleged by an England 2018 source to be “the most corrupt of the lot”. Mr Beckenbauer has previously denied wrongdoing.
FA officials questioned by the Garcia probe did not raise the question of the database because of legal concerns but he had access to it, according to the document. It also claims that the England bid team colluded with the South Korea 2022 bid on the eve of the ballot to trade votes in a breach of Fifa rules. Despite the secret deal, the South Korean delegate allegedly reneged on the deal and backed Russia.
In a statement, the FA said its bid chief executive Andy Anson shared any intelligence that he believed could be substantiated with Mr Garcia when he was interviewed as part of the anti-corruption inquiry. “Everything else was hearsay, gossip and rumour,” the FA said.
The allegations are the latest in a series of claims by the newspaper that secured a cache of hundreds of millions of documents from a Fifa whistleblower which showed a string of illicit payments by Qatar’s former Fifa vice president Mohamed bin Hammam to officials around the world.
The reports, widespread criticisms of Fifa, and an ongoing investigation by the FBI in the United States have so far proved insufficient to remove Mr Blatter. The latest allegations based on the bid team’s database were described by a source in the Sunday Times document as not “legally credible” as they were not enough comprehensively to prove corruption.
But the publication of the Sunday Times document by the parliamentary committee gives it some protection against being sued for libel by the people it names.
When contacted by The Independent, Uefa said: "We can confirm that Mr. Platini has never received any painting (whether by Picasso or anyone else) either from Mr. Koloskov or from any other representative of Russia 2018.
"Furthermore, we should point out that if your newspaper makes any false statement or implication that Mr. Platini received such a painting then we reserve our rights to take any necessary legal action.
"As you know, Mr. Platini has been one of the few members of the FIFA Executive Committee to publicly state who he voted for regarding the hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2018 and 2022.
"Mr. Platini has also fully cooperated with the recent investigation conducted by the FIFA Ethics Committee on the subject and has called for the report of Mr. Garcia to be made public. In fact, he has been, and will continue to be, completely transparent throughout."