The latest storm clouds over FIFA are not news to a number of people. The US Department of Justice indictment of several FIFA officials deserves to be a best-seller. But there’s already been a few over the years of the FIFA presidencies of Joao Havelange and Joseph S Blatter. In the first occasional review of the books the lazy sod’s got round to reading, Mark Murphy examines a tale of Qatari bribery and corruption, as alleged and told by the Sunday Times newspaper’s “Insight” team.
Among the literary awards hopefully coming to Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert’s tale of “The Qatari plot to buy the World Cup,” should be “worst title of the year…any year, in fact.” “The Ugly Game” is an unoriginal reworking of the laziest way to describe football and isn’t even an original book title. Fortunately, this originality and quality is in inverse proportion to that of the book inside the cover. It chronicles the Sunday Times newspaper journalists’ three-month trawl through “a treasure trove of hundreds of millions of documents stored on a network of supercomputers,” which they turned into The FIFA Files, published with mischief in mind before, during and after the Brazil-hosted 2014 World Cup, and alleging financial misdeeds which secured the 2022 event for Qatar.
The story’s main protagonist is Mohamed Bin Hammam, the ultra-rich Qatari former FIFA vice-president and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president. He also, briefly, challenged Sepp Blatter for the FIFA presidency, which proved fatal to his football career. The book frequently tempts us to view Bin Hammam sympathetically. It is strong on the development of Bin Hammam’s genuine love for football, dating back to his childhood, in contrast to many fellow senior administrators’ genuine love of personal riches from football, dating back to their first bribe. Bin Hammam’s “peculiar passion for football” is evocatively recounted, even if references to him “straining to hear the (radio) commentary on his favourite team, Liverpool” doesn’t quite fit with football being “a lonely love for a boy from (Qatari capital) Doha in the 1950s,” years of pre-Bill Shankly relative obscurity.
At the top and tail of the book he is portrayed as a lonely, mournful figure, banned from football. The man who “in his heyday” was “abroad much more than he was ever at home, jetting from city to city to be greeted so graciously” (people such as Bin Hammam always “jet” rather than merely “fly”) is juxtaposed with the man who now “has no reason to travel and has not left Doha for a year.” And the authors momentarily succumb to this temptation. As they pieced together Bin Hammam as both human being and wheeler-dealer, they declared: “His activities were unquestionably corrupt, but it was hard not to warm to (him) for his graciousness, dignity and, ironically, his generosity.”
However, as “unquestionably corrupt” timeously remind us, the temptation must be largely resisted. The 460-page tome contains a catalogue of plain bribery and corruption allegations, drawn from a meticulous study and organisation of the aforementioned documents.
These record Bin Hammam buying majority FIFA Executive Committee (ExCo) backing for Qatar’s bid. In this venture, Bin Hammam was amply assisted by his AFC staff, his personal entourage, slush funds from Kemco (his “multi-billion dollar construction company”) and the Doha bank account of Aisha Mohd Al Abdullah… his daughter. “Bin Hammam ran the Asian confederation like an extension of his private office,” with “no qualms about draining its coffers of cash.” While the Qataris “signed up to rules” banning its bid, directly or indirectly, from “providing any football official with ‘monetary gifts (or) any kind of personal advantage that could even give the impression of exerting influence…in connection with the bidding process.’ This was exactly what Bin Hammam was doing behind the scenes…whether or not the leaders of Qatar’s bid knew it.”
Before long, Bin Hammam’s largesse becomes matter-of-fact. However, this is offset by the flowery, usually obsequious prose of quoted email correspondence from various football chiefs. “May the Almighty Allah replenish his resources a hundred fold,” wrote Liberian FA president Izetta Wesley, doubtless praying for her cut. Some laughably-appropriate names pock-mark the narrative. Blake cites as “basically the high point of my career so far” the discovery of “a corrupt official called Seedy.” And Gambian FA President Seedy Kinteh (for it was he) gets a mini-chapter of the book thus entitled in his “honour.” Some wearingly familiar names appear too. The repugnant Jack Warner, Caribbean football chief. “Swiss-Hungarian lobbyist” Peter Hargitay, “former Blatter aide” and spin doctor to the venal (and briefly the English FA until they told him to **** off). Angel Maria Villar Llona, Spanish former FIFA vice-president. Bloody Warner again. And again. And yet again.
The ease with which these people financially benefit from Bin Hammam’s desperation to deliver the World Cup to the Qatari royal family is as depressing as it is common “knowledge.” More understandable, is the enthusiasm with which Bin Hammam’s largesse was accepted by many of the leaders of the tiniest football federations. The influence and support of such administrators was easily bought by $50,000 and hospitality in opulent Doha hotels. And, as the book notes, “$40,000 was the equivalent of several year’s wages for officials from some of the smaller Caribbean islands.” Such resources were the equivalent to the Qatari of “50p for a cup of tea” to a beggar. And with African and Oceania and Caribbean nations “controlling” 25% of the relevant electorate, this expenditure was hugely cost-effective.
Blatter, naturally, looms large, and I defy any reader to last the book without wishing him harm. Blatter would never leave the paper trial which exposed Bin Hammam’s activities, hence his ability to avoid all corruption allegations to date. But given the dodgy dealers in FIFA’s “family” (mafia terminology used advisedly), you wonder if Blatter can continue to avoid the wrong sort of enemy. The book reveals that the Qatari World Cup was his idea, a “thank you” to Bin Hammam for sealing Blatter’s 1998 and 2002 presidential election victories. In the grateful afterglow, Blatter promised to limit presidencies to two four-year terms and stand aside in 2006 for the ambitious Bin Hammam. In 2006 however, Blatter requested, and of course got, a year’s extension to his second term and announced his intention to stand for a third. Bin Hammam meekly put aside his ambitions until 2011. But he didn’t appreciate the double-cross or the “thank you”, as the task of “persuading” venal, money-grabbing FIFA ExCo members of the benefits of a comprehensively irrational concept was huge…and hugely expensive.
The book methodically reveals how Bin Hammam played on this greedy venality in order to effectively buy Blatter his 1998 election victory. But “buying” the World Cup had to be done secretively over two years and required extensive negotiation through complex political and personal minefields. Blatter was threatened by Bin Hammam’s success on all fronts in bringing the World Cup to possibly the world’s most inappropriate venue (“the equivalent of holding the Superbowl in a lake”, according to Birmingham-born US TV satirist John Oliver). As a senior lobbyist, who was “one of the many casualties of Blatter’s changeable loyalties,” told Blake and Calvert: “Blatter had been very much afraid when Qatar was named as the host” because he knew “if Bin Hammam was so powerful he can make an election in favour (sic) of Qatar for the World Cup, he could do it again in the presidential race.”
It is impossible to overstate how grubbily Blatter eliminated Bin Hammam from the 2011 reckoning. Every book about FIFA contains at least one revelation from the “just when you think you’ve heard it all” file, usually involving Blatter. The tale and aftermath of his May 2011 meeting with the Qatari royal family is this book’s jaw-dropper. As early as page seven, we read that “one word… almost choked (Bin Hammam) with its bitterness, every time it spilled from his lips: Blatter.” By page 437, we know precisely and exhaustively why. And in the remaining pages, we are invited to join him in his bitterness, as Blatter masterminds FIFA’s farcical attempts to ignore the FIFA Files evidence and suppress their own “Garcia Report” into the 2018 and 2022 bidding processes.
Thankfully, the book is peppered with delicious turns of phrase, which keep the narrative light even as the tale plumbs these dark depths of venality and corruption. The Swiss laws of which FIFA take full advantage to keep accounts away from the merest scrutiny “are intended to shelter national yodelling clubs or homeless charities from cumbersome bureaucracy.” Warner is described as “notoriously rapacious,” and a “familiar rascal” who controlled an inordinate number of FIFA votes because, the joke ran, “every time a tiny atoll pierced the warm blue-green waters of the Caribbean, Warner would give it a football federation.” And Chuck Blazer, the CONCACAF general-secretary-turned-FBI-informant, “was as wide as he was tall,” with “all the appearance of a cash-crazed Father Christmas.”
The book also throws up some surprises, given the subsequent fate of the protagonists. Harold Mayne-Nicholls, the world’s most un-Chilean-sounding Chilean, produced a damning report on Qatar’s suitability to hold the event, emphasising the “high operational risk” of holding such a large tournament in such a small country and the high health risk “for players, officials…supporters” and, of course, the “FIFA family” (!) of doing so in searing summer desert heat. Mayne-Nicholls was last month banned from football activity for seven years for an email exchange with Qatar’s Aspire Academy during the bidding process in which he asked if his sons could train there. Nothing resulted from the correspondence. Co-incidentally (cough), Mayne-Nicholls had reportedly considered standing against Blatter for the FIFA presidency this year.
Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein did so. He “unwittingly caused acute embarrassment” by handing back rule-breakingly expensive gifts from the Brazilian FA before 2014’s World Cup. Yet Al-Hussein had been “an avowed Blatter-ite” whose successful campaign for Asia’s FIFA vice-presidency in 2011 “had benefited from the firm backing of the FIFA president.” The Cayman Islands’ Jeffrey Webb, the repugnant Warner’s successor as CONCACAF president, was another gift-returner who has, allegedly, subsequently become a bribe-taker, one of the high-profile arrestees in Zurich in May and last heard of agreeing to extradition to the United States to face his version of the corruption “music.”
From time to time, we receive insights into the clandestine nature of the journalists’ activities. They cover secret meetings with the “well-connected source at the top of world football” who provided the material for their expose, and the “domestic” arrangements they had to endure to keep their work a secret. These breaks from the story are written in a disconcerting (uncredited) third person and might have seemed like tangential self-indulgence from lesser pens. Here though, they effectively transmit the tension surrounding the journalists, without detracting from the book. Indeed, the book’s faults are the more glaring for being so rare. The story of the payments which finally did for Bin Hammam is cogently told. But questions remain about the chronology of events, which suggest “set-up” even to my untrained investigative eyes.
Also missing is the eyebrow-raising employment history of FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke, whose June 2007 appointment came six months after he was “released” as marketing director for lying to sponsors during sponsorship negotiations. “(We) cannot possibly accept such conduct among its own employees,” FIFA… lied. Still, there are enough back stories of officials who “in any other organisation he would have been sacked,” to emphasise how rogue FIFA’s rogues gallery is. Meanwhile, the epilogue is a “where are they now?” in which we are cornily invited to follow “faint eddies of the fine dust that blows in from the Arabian desert” as it tours the world via trade winds and slipstreams, passing the repugnant Warner and the grubbiest, highest-profile of his FIFA colleagues before returning to Bin Hammam.
However, the book is good enough to excuse this particular indulgence, even though it was published before the FBI indictment in which they all appear and is therefore incomplete. The book’s paperback version will doubtless provide the necessary updates. In the meantime, the indictment serves as a valuable accompanying text. Every tale of wrongdoing at the head and heart of FIFA needs reading by anyone remotely interested in seeing football cleansed of such filth. Books such as “The Ugly Game” should approach best-sellers lists on that basis alone. The fact that Blake and Calvert’s book is so highly readable is a bonus. And even if you must wait for the paperback, it is a must-buy.
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