For as long as there has been money in international soccer, there have been whispers of corruption and geopolitical scheming. The whispers have turned into shouts, however, with the collision of two major global developments – the controversially awarded 2022 Qatar World Cup has re-emerged within the drama of the ongoing Qatar geopolitical crisis. The revelations surrounding both demonstrate not only that sports and geopolitics are undeniably connected, but also that both are governed by two sets of rules – one for elites, the other for the rest.
Though it no longer dominates the headlines, the Qatar crisis continues. Saudi Arabia and its main regional allies, Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt, have maintained pressure on the tiny country for over eight months. Though the 10-day deadline to comply has come and gone, Saudi Arabia has not relented, and Qatar has been unable to end the crisis or definitively push back against her adversaries, despite enormous wealth, concerted PR campaigns and savvy workarounds for cut off transport routes and other demands.
As the list of demands made of Qatar remains untenable, the list of geopolitical issues connected to the crisis, its lead-up and possibility of its resolution grows. Spurred by Saudi accusations that Qatar is unabashedly funding terrorism in the region, the ongoing crisis is now yielding a wealth of ancillary revelations, not least of which are the astounding allegations of corruption connected with Qatar being awarded the 2022 World Cup. Instances of alleged corruption include a jaw-dropping agreement, made prior to the World Cup country selection vote, for Al Jazeera to give FIFA $100 million in the event of a Qatar victory. This explains why the Saudis included the shuttering of Al-Jazeera, viewed as a powerful, influential entity (especially in the Arabic-speaking world), as one of its core demands.
There have been several massive sports scandals in recent years, including IOC corruption, and doping in baseball, cycling and the Olympics, but there has never been a scandal of this magnitude, ensnaring superstar politicians, FIFA leadership, and international brands across multiple industries. If the most recent revelations, detailed in tell-all books and ongoing court cases, are correct, the Qatar crisis does not exist in a regional vacuum. Instead, it is at the center of a far bigger geopolitical story – one of two sets of rules for two tiers of global actors, which plays quite fittingly into the narrative Saudi Arabia has advanced.
Major media have not covered the corruption angle of Qatar 2022 thoroughly, despite the newsworthiness of the developments, directly and indirectly linking major politicians and global brands to stunning plots. Disbelief following the decision to award the tournament to Qatar quickly changed to outrage over the atrocious labor conditions in which foreign workers toiled to build ambitious infrastructure projects. Then, the overall story of the unlikely Middle Eastern World Cup, which many believed had far more improprieties to uncover, dropped from the headlines, eclipsed by other global developments.
Absent riveting tales of US President Donald Trump’s brashness or China’s scheming, multiple distinct allegations of corruption and bribery involving the world’s biggest sports broadcasters and athletic apparel brands would have been front-page stories.
Qatar’s spokespeople have dismissed the FIFA scandal(s) as completely unrelated to the country or the political crisis, and limited to the cases involving The Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF). Yet Qatar has been unable to reconcile its interpretation of events with mounting allegations. These include charges of vote tampering by Nicolas Sarkozy, former president of France, who is also under investigation for multiple other questionable activities, and corruption by significant Qatar-linked officials like footballing legend Michel Platini.
They have downplayed the role of Qatari Mohammad bin Hammam – head of the Asian Football Confederation for nearly a decade, and a member of FIFA’s executive committee for 15 years – who was recently claimed to have been forced to stand down in a recent FIFA election (before being banned for life) as part of a deal, made with disgraced former FIFA head Sepp Blatter, to not withdraw the World Cup from Qatar.
Qatari spin also ignores reports attributed to Emirati officials that the crisis would be over if only Qatar surrendered or lost the World Cup, as widely reported in October.
As more evidence of malfeasance comes to light, the public’s response is best characterized as apathetic, despite occasional headlines. Global brands, such as Adidas, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Kia, McDonald’s and Visa, expressed displeasure with FIFA’s actions and opaque “reforms” (Adidas on multiple occasions), but none have actually formally cut ties. Press coverage is somewhat to blame.
While Qatar’s mouthpiece Al-Jazeera is influential and biased in favor of the state in its Arabic language coverage (English language coverage is far more balanced), international media does not seem to care much either way. But Al-Jazeera is not alone. Six Western media companies, including Fox Sports, are themselves implicated in the scandal, rendering them unable to be impartial or credible in their reporting on the issue. By failing to be a check on power, and limiting coverage of the alleged connection of major brands, such as Nike, to this pervasive corruption, the uninvolved media cedes any power over messaging to the brands and others eager to paint themselves in a positive light.
In turn, consumers are less aware of these brands’ entanglement in the scandals, and therefore are not pushing for companies to cut ties with organizations engaged in corrupt and criminal activities, as has become common in an environment where consumers demand greater social responsibility from brands. While large investigative projects are in vogue, as demonstrated by the Paradise Papers and similar inquiries, the dramatic plots surrounding the governing body of the world’s most popular sport, ongoing court cases, and the many major politicians involved have merited comparatively little investigative focus.
In part, the problem is a lack of concrete facts – many of the central figures, notably former FIFA president Blatter, continually change their stories, further muddling the narrative. Blatter even threatened to sue FIFA, a scenario that would likely expose further secrets the organization would prefer to keep under wraps. The most prominent whistle-blower, Phaedra Almajid, retracted her claims in 2011, before later saying that the retraction was made under duress.
Though the scandals involving Qatar keep growing, the international investigations continue and the potential ramifications increase, the larger story remains largely ignored. There are the occasional small pieces on ongoing court cases, but these are often absent the larger context, namely the Qatar political crisis. Qatar has, so far, aptly utilized its soft power to deflect from its myriad misdeeds; one must ask if it will be forever immune, or if a renewed focus will yield more disclosures, and whether those revelations will lead to repercussions for the parties involved. Absent consequences for these violations, misdeeds are likely to continue – both in international sports governance and geopolitical maneuvering.
The interconnectedness of these two stories – one seemingly just about international sports, the other supposedly just about international relations – serves to confirm the suspicion that these two worlds have much in common, from the people involved, to the tactics, to the power plays and blatant disregard for rules, laws and ethics. Given the commonalities, we cannot ignore the corruption in either, as they remain intertwined and self-perpetuating.Milena Rodban is a geopolitical risk consultant and long-time soccer fan who designs and facilitates interactive simulations to allow clients to diagnose problems, analyze major decisions and integrate more effective communication, collaboration and crisis-response protocols. She is currently finishing a book on the political risk industry.Morgan Carlston is an independent researcher and analyst, and a former collegiate soccer player who has a master’s degree in Middle Eastern History from Tel Aviv University, and blogs on Iran and the greater Middle East at persophilia.blogspot.com.