Blatter’s gone; Will Qatar be next?

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Blatter’s gone; Will Qatar be next?

After FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s stunning resignation announcement Tuesday, there’s been much discussion on the next steps soccer’s governing body must take to institute meaningful reform. Beyond questions of the organization’s long-term future, however, there’s the more immediate concern of what to do with upcoming World Cup tournaments.

It’s long been suspected that bidding processes for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar involved the same kind of bribery and corruption that mired the 2010 tournament in South Africa. The four days between Blatter’s re-election and his sudden announcement saw the leak of a letter from the president of the South African Football Association to Jerome Valcke, FIFA secretary general and Blatter’s right-hand man. It requested a $10 million payment to be “administered and implemented directly by the President of CONCACAF” - Jack Warner, one of the 14 men indicted last week. At least five of those arrested served on the executive committee for the World Cup vote.

Such strong evidence on Russia and Qatar has yet to emerge, and that’s partly by design. When former U.S. attorney Michael Garcia conducted his investigation into the bidding process, commissioned by FIFA’s ethics committee, he found Russian officials had destroyed all records pertaining to their vote, while Qatari officials were mostly uncooperative.

Let’s hope the U.S. Department of Justice can shed more light on the opaque circumstances surrounding the Russian and Qatari bids. The FBI announced Wednesday it was widening the scope of its investigation to scrutinize the two bids, in conjunction with the ongoing probe by Swiss authorities. Investigators are likely banking on the cooperation of those in custody, a common tactic in prosecuting white-collar crimes that brought about last week’s indictments, thanks to the testimony of former FIFA executive Chuck Blazer, which is set to be released today.

In the absence of any such smoking gun, Russian President Vladimir Putin remains publicly defiant. At this point, it would take a monumental turn of events, akin to Blatter’s resignation, to move the World Cup from Russia. The stadiums have already been built, and with the preliminary draw scheduled for next month, it might simply be too late for the logistic reconsiderations. There are also political considerations: Putin has loudly characterized the U.S. inquiry as imperialistic overreach, while Russian commentators have dismissed itas an attempt to distract from larger issues such as NSA spying.

But some in Russia are wary of the persistence shown by the investigators, and worry that Putin’s fervent defense of Blatter might come back to haunt him.

The Qatar World Cup has been under greater scrutiny and stands a better chance of being relocated. Qatari officials have held strong - characterizing any criticism as anti-Arab bias and pointing to the whitewashed Garcia report as evidence of their innocence. But remember that FIFA only released a highly truncated version of the report; the full thing is now being examined by the FBI and the Swiss.

Many agree that if FIFA is serious about transparency and reform, its next president must take a stand against a country that jails journalists reporting on World Cup construction abuses and its kafala system of labor, which amounts to modern-day slavery. Too bad that many of the front-runners to succeed Blatter were just as supportive of Qatar’s bid.

Anything short of moving the 2022 tournament would be a strong signal that FIFA’s push for self-reform is little more than window dressing. What FIFA really needs is a gut renovation, and that starts with moving house.

*The author is a Bloomberg View columnist for sports.

by Kavitha A. Davidson

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