By JOHN LEICESTER
2014-06-03 06:01 AM
Secret slush funds, junkets, gifts and payments to football officials. At first glance, the latest allegations that a Qatari official greased palms to help buy the 2022 World Cup for his Gulf nation make very depressing reading for anyone who loves the global game and its showcase tournament.
But the silver lining is this: better that this came to light than not at all. This stink bomb couldn't have been rolled into FIFA's house at a more opportune time. With global attention latching onto football because of the upcoming World Cup in Brazil, outside pressure on football's governing body and Qatar for plausible answers, for action and for heads to roll will be intense.
The spotlight now falls on two people: FIFA president Sepp Blatter and FIFA prosecutor Michael Garcia.
Blatter should resist calls -- at least for now -- for Qatar to be stripped of the 2022 World Cup or for a re-vote to be held. Such a momentous and unprecedented decision, which would be a huge affront to the tiny but very rich nation in a volatile, complicated and strategic part of the world, cannot be taken lightly. It should not be taken in the heat of the moment. Nor should it be a knee-jerk response to allegations in a newspaper.
Politicians and others so quick to suggest that Qatar is no longer or perhaps never was a suitable and trustworthy World Cup host should pause and take breath. They should consider how public opinion in the Middle East might react if Qatar was shamed in the eyes of the world by being stripped of the tournament, especially if evidence to justify such a financial, geopolitical, legal, social and sporting earthquake is anything less than rock-solid.
They also should consider whether pressure on FIFA to ditch Qatar is based on an abundance of cold, hard facts and incontrovertible proof of Qatari wrongdoing that makes FIFA's 2010 vote for the Gulf nation invalid. Or is Western snobbery, jealousy of Qatar's wealth and disdain -- verging on borderline racism at times -- for what is a new frontier in the global spread of football also playing a role, even a minor one, here?
Yes, the evidence of apparent sleaze, patronage and influence-buying leaked to the Sunday Times by what it called "a senior FIFA insider" does look compelling. It alleged that Qatari official Mohamed bin Hammam, subsequently banned for life by FIFA in 2012, made dozens of payments totaling $5 million to generate a swell of support in the game for Qatar and its unlikely but ambitious bid to play the World Cup in air-conditioned stadiums in a country with no footballing tradition.
And, yes, these aren't the first allegations to suggest that the Qatar vote was crooked. Qatar 2022 organizers issued a statement denying "all allegations of wrongdoing" and said Bin Hammam played no role in the bid. The Sunday Times investigation was impressively detailed, with emails and spreadsheets showing apparent payments and favors for African football officials.
"This is really exciting. If confirmed, it would really, well, corroborate the worst suspicions that we had of what had happened," Mark Pieth told the BBC. He is a Swiss anti-corruption expert FIFA turned to for advice on how to restore its battered credibility after the 2010 vote and Blatter's re-election in 2011.
The easy argument to make on the back of the Sunday Times claims is that the buck should now stop with Blatter and that he must resign or, at the very least, abandon his ambitions for another four-year term from 2015. Although the newspaper didn't allege wrongdoing by the FIFA president, repeated bribery, vote-buying and corruption scandals during his 16-year watch have shredded the governing body's reputation. There'd be cheers inside and outside football if he stepped aside.
But surely more pressing for football than the relatively narrow personnel issue of whether Blatter should go (which he won't) is the broader issue of FIFA's future and credibility. It must demonstrate that anti-corruption and good-governance reforms Blatter introduced after his re-election aren't simply cosmetic. It must prove to a world that struggles to believe anything FIFA does or says, or even why it should still exist, that it can now clean up its own mess. It must show that it has properly investigated Qatar's bid.
That job is Garcia's. The former U.S. attorney and Interpol vice president previously prosecuted financial crimes on Wall Street and helped prosecute and convict terrorists in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. After FIFA appointed him in 2012 as its first supposedly independent lead prosecutor, Garcia pledged to study all allegations of corruption from any source. He offered anonymity for whistleblowers. He now intends to wrap up his investigation of the votes on Qatar and 2018 World Cup host Russia by next week and then spend another six weeks writing up and finalizing his findings.
Before rushing to judgment, football, FIFA and its critics should hear what he has to say. If there was serious wrongdoing, FIFA must have the courage to order a re-vote on 2022 if necessary.
But given the ramifications, it should also be allowed to tread one step at a time.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester