From the moment in December 2010 that Fifa’s president, Sepp Blatter, opened the envelope and pronounced the word “Qatar” to a tense auditorium in Zurich and millions more eagerly following proceedings worldwide, the winners of the 2022 World Cup ballot have been forced against the wall more times than they could possibly have imagined.
Beating the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea took some doing. In their elation, Qatari organisers, led by the fast-talking and multilingual Hassan al-Thawadi, immediately recognised that they would have plenty of troubleshooting to do once it had sunk in that the world’s most popular sporting event was going to a baking-hot country half the size of Wales with precious little footballing pedigree and a totally alien culture to anywhere that had hosted it before.
He was right. Almost from day one, rumour upon rumour and allegation after allegation poured in from all parts of the world as Qatar’s vanquished opponents cried foul. Yet Thawadi and his team were determined not to lose faith in what they had just achieved. A World Cup for Qatar was a World Cup for the Middle East, they proclaimed.
Thawadi has admitted many times that some of the more vitriolic criticism about Qatar’s bid campaign and standards of behaviour has been painful to hear. His country, he says, won fairly and squarely and behaved with total integrity. He used the same language when it became clear that a one-off winter World Cup was becoming increasingly likely. And when Qatar’s human rights record was brought into sharp focus.
Neither of those two factors, however powerful they might be, justifies the tournament being taken away from Qatar. Rightly or wrongly, that can only happen if there is clear proof that Qatar broke bidding regulations. So far, there has been no firm evidence to suggest that it did.
Until, perhaps, yesterday’s revelations in The Sunday Times, which were published just before Fifa’s ethics committee corruption buster Michael Garcia was due to meet Qatari officials in Oman today as part of his investigation into the entire bidding process for 2018 and 2022.
Let’s be clear. Fifa would never strip Qatar of the World Cup based on media reports, however damaging, detailed and comprehensive. But already, Britain’s Fifa vice-president Jim Boyce has urged Garcia to take into account The Sunday Times’ remarkable allegations that claimed Mohamed bin Hammam, once Qatar’s most powerful football administrator but banned from the game in 2011, did his level best to secure African votes by paying out huge amounts of money.
Garcia’s report is not due out until the end of this year but there is now growing speculation that the explosive allegations might ultimately prove a game changer. The Qataris, for their part, again refuse to be rattled, telling anyone who will listen that, despite the fact he was once Asia’s most powerful administrator and a Qatari to boot, Hammam never actively lobbied on their behalf. Will they be able to convince Garcia this was indeed the case?
The worry for Qatar is that we now at the very least have documented evidence of Hammam lavishing hospitality upon a spate of influential officials and federations. Garcia may conclude that while his conduct did not break the letter of the law, it certainly breached the spirit. That’s certainly the view of Qatar’s vanquished 2022 opponents and, at the very least, the rules surrounding acceptable behaviour during future bid campaigns must – and will – be tightened up.