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Qatar is taking the heat for FIFA corruption

Investigations into FIFA’s actions reveal the global soccer organization has a long history of bribery and money-laundering. Will that change?

- November 20, 2022

The FIFA World Cup gets underway this week. Normally, the pretournament talk would have focused around which soccer players are set to catch the global imagination and which country’s team will earn the much coveted mantle of world champion.

Not this time. Much of the discussion has centered instead on the host nation, Qatar, and whether it should have been selected for the privilege of putting on the most watched sporting event on earth. Qatar is by far the smallest country ever to host the World Cup — and many critics have denounced the country’s treatment of migrant workers, its attitude to same-sex relationships and what looks like a brazen attempt to launder its image via “the beautiful game.”

Why Qatar’s World Cup was controversial a decade before the first game

Many of those criticisms may be merited, as other articles discuss. But one popular charge — corruption — is more complicated. Whatever Qatar did or did not do to secure the right to host the World Cup, any charges of corruption also implicate FIFA — the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, soccer’s global governing body.

The Qataris followed FIFA rules and the logic behind those rules. Qataris looking to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup played the game in much the same way that the Russians (2018), Brazilians (2014), South Africans (2010) and Germans (2006) appear to have done in the past.

What is corruption, exactly?

As my research shows, pinpointing where corruption begins and ends — or even what it actually means — is surprisingly difficult. There was a time when the likes of Aristotle argued that corruption was all behavior that wasn’t virtuous. But in recent years the focus has moved away from the moral discussion toward the broadly transactional. Not all corruption analysts are happy with this perspective, but it’s become the generally accepted way of unpacking the term.

Scholars now see corruption as a process with a number of constituent parts.

First, corruption is deliberate. No person is accidentally corrupt. Corruption is not an act of mismanagement or an accident. It happens as people want it to happen.

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Second, corruption involves some sort of abusive behavior. To pin down where “abuse” begins and ends, we must know what the rules of engagement are. Without knowing what a given job specification says, for instance, we can’t be sure that someone has gone beyond that in making decisions.

Third, corruption involves entrusted power. That power can come via the ballot box (politicians) or it can come via appointment (bureaucrats and administrators).

And last, there has to be some sort of private gain. Corruption involves an output — be it money, reputation or services rendered — that would not otherwise have been forthcoming.

So, was the Qatari bid corrupt?

Following FIFA’s December 2010 decision, critics voiced widespread feelings of discontent about how Qatar had won its bid to stage the 2022 World Cup. Two distinct external investigations subsequently took place. Swiss prosecutors looked specifically at money laundering in conjunction with decisions to award the 2018 and 2022 tournaments to Russia and Qatar.

The other, much broader investigation by the U.S. Justice Department looked into claims made to enforcement agents by Chuck Blazer, a member of FIFA’s governing council for nearly two decades. The claims centered around accusations of racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering by people in and around FIFA. The DOJ’s investigation also made a point of going beyond the Qatar vote to look at corruption claims going back decades.

The conclusions by U.S. authorities were eye-catching. The Justice Department prosecuted more than 50 individual and corporate defendants in and around FIFA; 27 people (and four corporations) pleaded guilty to various bribery and money-laundering charges. Many of the investigations remain underway. As the Justice Department noted in June, a number of banks and other entities also signed deferred prosecution or non-prosecution agreements, acknowledging their roles in facilitating this conduct.

FIFA, meanwhile, was quick to portray itself as the victim in all this. The global sports body argued, and the Justice Department ultimately agreed, that it was a bystander that a range of individuals and entities used to achieve their own (often corrupt) aims. When the department seized over $201 million from the accounts of former FIFA officials involved in bribery, money laundering and kickback schemes, the U.S. government subsequently gave that money back to FIFA as compensation. FIFA put that money into a new fund with the aim of boosting the organization’s broader work in the community and helping to promote women’s and girls’ soccer.

Does FIFA still have a problem?

If the definitions outlined above are a starting point, then the investigations that have been conducted into the behavior of top FIFA representatives over the past two decades suggest the organization has struggled with significant corruption issues.

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Further, following criticisms about how the 2018 and 2022 World Cup host venues were awarded, FIFA attempted to revise the way it governed itself. An Independent Governance Committee would oversee this and make final recommendations to FIFA’s Executive Committee. The aim was to help avoid corruption scandals in the future.

Those changes were meant to center on injecting more transparency and accountability into how FIFA works. Law professor Mark Pieth, one of the architects of the policy changes, pulled no punches as to how successful they have been, claiming that the supposed modernization under current FIFA head Gianni Infantino has “plunged it into the Dark Ages of [former FIFA president Sepp] Blatter.” As Pieth notes, “they’re simply not up to regulating themselves.” Yet, this is exactly where FIFA is now.

People have asked legitimate and important questions about Qatar’s fitness to hold the tournament.

When it comes to allegations about corruption, however, it really is not the Qataris who have the case to answer. That’s where FIFA has some explaining to do.

Dan Hough is professor of politics at the Center for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex. He is the author of “Analysing Corruption” (Columbia University Press, 2017) and regularly tweets from @thedanhough.