“A bribe is like a ghost. It’s untouchable. You will never find it,” observed Fikile Mbulala, South Africa’s Sports Minister at a hurriedly convened press conference in the wake of the publication of a letter that, at least in the eyes of the US Attorney General, shows the head of the South African Football Association paying a $10m bribe to Jack Warner, the reviled former head of Caribbean and North American Football. “But there is correspondence between South Africa and Fifa.”
It is the beginnings of a defence. That if the payment was nefarious, why do it through official channels, verified with written letters, and via Fifa’s own Zurich bank accounts? If it were a bribe, it would have been done secretly.
Such a defence is unlikely to impress American investigators. But the letter’s existence and the obfuscation it has induced is particularly illuminating when it comes to the question of whether Qatar, or indeed Russia, could lose their World Cups.
In the question of bribery in South Africa’s bid, this is as close as the US investigation has come to conclusive proof, to a smoking gun. Close, but semi-plausible deniability remains. We now know for certain that the US investigators are looking into the 2010 vote that awarded the 2018 and 2022 votes. It would have been more of a surprise if they had not, given their informant, Chuck Blazer, was one of the voters.
What the Warner letter suggests is that the cabal of crooks who controlled Fifa at that time at least had the imagination to come up with ways of casting plausible deniability into the system.
Could South Africa pay $10m to Jack Warner? No. Could they fund a legacy programme for the African Diaspora in the Caribbean, to allow Mr Warner to purloin the funds, and keep the whole thing secret for several years? Of course. Only overwhelming proof of bribery on the part of Qatar or Russia could compel Fifa to consider re-running the competition, which only its Executive Committee has the authority to do. It may well be the case President Blatter’s departure was hastened by fear of the FBI net closing around him, but so far, its investigation has made no charges or allegations against the integrity of the 2010 selection competition that chose these two hosts. We are led to believe that stage is coming next. But the dragging of Fifa officials from their Zurich hotel beds does not appear to be the behaviour of an investigation that is keeping its powder dry.
Of course, there is also the separate investigation by the Swiss Attorney General into the awarding of tournaments to Qatar and Russia, but so far we have little reason to believe that is based on anything more than Michael Garcia’s report - in other words Fifa’s own powerless investigation of itself, paid for by itself. When it comes to Qatar, we already know the convenient truth, that vast corrupt payments made by the now disgraced Qatari Mohammed Bin Hammam were only concerned with his failed run at the Fifa Presidency in 2011, and had nothing to do with his country’s World Cup bid. Do we believe it? Almost certainly not. But without fundamental change to the federation’s organisational structures, it is only what the Fifa Executive Committee believes that matters. And the excuses were built in to the system, long ago.
If a real smoking gun is found, that might change things. But it would require extensive and extremely complex international lawsuits to be filed by the failed bidders, whose own bids, in most cases, don’t appear to be beyond reproach. It would also render Fifa not fit for purpose as an organisation. So how is a new host to be chosen? What is beyond doubt is that England’s right to the 2018 tournament, or Australia or the US’s to 2022, to which politicians and the popular press in those countries simply cannot help themselves from claiming, are entirely bogus - that really would be a stitch up.
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