The Ugly Game by Heidi Blake & Jonathan Calvert, book review

Exploring the seedy side of the football federation

Mihir Bose
Thursday 07 May 2015 13:04
There has been endless speculation that the Qataris bought the World Cup
There has been endless speculation that the Qataris bought the World Cup

Football has never been so popular or so dominant. So much so that, in this election, David Cameron's slip-up about which team he supports – he confused West Ham with Aston Villa – raised questions about his suitability to lead the country. Yet the people who run the game have never been in such bad odour with the stench from Fifa, the game's world body, almost overpowering.

Allegations of shady dealings have long swirled round Fifa but what has made the present crisis the worst in Fifa's history, is that never before has bribe-giving been documented in such graphic detail. All this has emerged following the extraordinary decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

This was done despite Fifa's own evaluation commission report that holding it in such a small country represented an "operational and logistical challenge" and the summer heat, that can reach 50C, is "a potential health risk". In the five years since the decision was taken, there has been endless speculation that the Qataris bought the World Cup. The Qataris vehemently deny this but allegations of vote-buying keep surfacing.

Much of the investigation has been the work of The Sunday Times Insight Team and this book is a follow-up to last summer's story when Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert – who were provided with hundreds of millions of documents from a whistle blower – revealed that Mohamed bin Hammam, the Qatari member of the Fifa executive when the organisation choose Qatar, had paid bribes on an almost industrial scale to football officials round the world in the years leading up to the vote.

Blake and Calvert provide a very readable narrative of Hamman's doings, which included using a bank account of his daughter Aisha, in the two years prior to the vote, to pay more than $5 million to leaders of 30 football federations, one of whom, then president of the Gambian FA, even had the very appropriate name of Seedy Kinteh.

There are also details of various other deals and, despite not having had access to Hammam, they have clearly spoken to those close to him and their description of working in an anonymous attic room above a boarded up high-street shop in a "northern suburb", worried they might come to some harm, gives the book the feel of a thriller.

But for all their diligence, and despite the fact that Qatar's denial sounds hollow, they cannot definitely prove that Hammam's bribes bought Qatar the World Cup. The explanation given is that Hammam was in fact trying to buy the Fifa presidency. And with many of the officials named also claiming to be innocent the book is peppered with asterisk footnotes of such denials.

Hammam has since been banned from Fifa for life and Qatar will host the World Cup except it has been moved to winter. But the refusal of president Sepp Blatter, under whose watch all this happened, to take any responsibility (indeed he is standing for a fifth term next month) means the organisation has achieved the remarkable feat of making the bank chiefs who caused the 2008 crash look like men of outstanding integrity.

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