The fate of the Qatar 2022 World Cup hangs in the balance after the resignation of its chief protector, FIFA president Sepp Blatter, amid the biggest bribery and corruption investigation in sporting history.
Insiders say the leaders of Qatar's 2022 Supreme Committee (or local organising committee) have now been told not to set foot on U.S. soil for fear of being arrested by the FBI in its investigation into allegations that FIFA officials turned football into a "criminal enterprise" and presided over a "World Cup of fraud."
Blatter resigned in a shock move at an emergency press conference at FIFA headquarters on Tuesday afternoon, days after Swiss authorities, acting at the behest of the FBI, arrested seven senior football officials on the eve of his re-election at world football's annual congress in Zurich last week.
Qatar 2022 vehemently denied that its officials have been warned to avoid traveling to the United States. "Your information is incorrect and running a story based on it is irresponsible," wrote spokesperson Nasser Al-Khater. "Neither the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy nor anyone associated with it or the Qatar bid have any reason to avoid travelling to the United States or anywhere else in the world. Any suggestion by BuzzFeed to the contrary is defamatory and will be brought to the attention of our legal counsel."
But a source close to Qatar's 2022 Supreme Committee told BuzzFeed News that its leaders were "scared about Blatter going because they don't want the World Cup vote to be reopened." He said: "The entire 2022 bid team have been advised not to travel to the USA. ... They are concerned about being arrested and pulled in for questioning."
A second source said that Qatari bid officials had been advised by lawyers not to travel to the U.S. "There is an internal informal advice from the US lawyers working for Q22 to the top officials of Q22 not to go to USA," he wrote in an email.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the young royal who chaired the country's successful World Cup bid, is said to be the only senior figure who is exempted from the ban because he is understood to travel under a diplomatic passport that grants him immunity from arrest.
Blatter's bombshell resignation leaves Qatar exposed to mounting calls for the 2022 World Cup to be moved to a new venue in the wake of an avalanche of evidence that the country's most senior football official, Mohamed bin Hammam, waged a multimillion-dollar vote-buying campaign to rig the ballot in his country's favour. The official Qatar 2022 bid committee has always vehemently denied any wrongdoing and said he was not working on its behalf.
The decision to award the world's biggest sporting tournament to the tiny desert nation of Qatar was greeted with dismay and derision around the world when it was announced by Blatter following a secret ballot of FIFA voters in 2010. The country had almost no soccer infrastructure, no serious professional league, and its searing summer temperatures of up to 122ºF were judged by FIFA's own technical assessors to pose a "high risk" to the health of players. Allegations that the secret ballot had been rigged by bribery and backroom deals soon began to surface.
More than perhaps anyone, Blatter has protected Qatar. Time and again, he has rebuffed calls for the tiny Gulf state to be stripped of the right to host the tournament. Sources say he has shielded Qatar from allegations of corruption since striking a deal with the country's royal family to protect the 2022 tournament if bin Hammam dropped his challenge for the presidency of FIFA in 2011.
"Blatter had told Qatar that he would expose their bid unless they made bin Hammam pull out," a source close to the Qatari billionaire has told me. "He told me there was a deal and he was forced to withdraw."
Bin Hammam pulled out on the eve of the election, and Blatter has since repeatedly refused to consider reopening the World Cup vote despite massive and growing evidence that the original ballot in 2010 was skewed by rampant vote-buying.
Days after the deal was allegedly struck in 2011, Blatter announced that Qatar was "not touched" by corruption allegations, and FIFA would do "nothing" about evidence passed to a parliamentary inquiry by the Sunday Times suggesting Qatar had paid massive bribes to FIFA voters to obtain the right to stage the 2022 competition.
Then last year, when my colleague Jonathan Calvert and I published evidence from a vast trove of leaked documents showing how bin Hammam had used a multimillion-dollar network of slush funds to bribe dozens of officials to support the country's bid, Blatter took no action against Qatar and instead accused us of "discrimination and racism". The story of bin Hammam's vote-buying campaign and the Qatari deal with Blatter is set out in our new book, The Ugly Game.
The full lengths to which Blatter was prepared to go to protect Qatar became clear when FIFA suppressed its own internal report on corruption in the 2018 and 2022 bidding race, submitted to its ethics chamber by the former U.S. attorney Michael Garcia last September.
Blatter refused to publish the report in full but claimed it had cleared Qatar and Russia of any wrongdoing. However, Garcia promptly resigned in a fury, saying that FIFA's summary of his work contained "numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts."
Despite international outrage at the handling of the Garcia report, Blatter appeared at a press conference in December last year to confirm that the 2018 and 2022 World Cups would not be moved.
With Blatter at the helm, it appeared that the two tournaments were unassailable. A source close to Garcia told BuzzFeed News last week that FIFA would never respond properly to the evidence of corruption until Blatter was deposed. "Nothing's going to change as long as the current administration is there," he said.
Blatter was sailing serenely towards re-election for a fifth term at the helm of world soccer until the U.S. Department of Justice last week indicted 14 football officials and marketing executives accused of corrupting the game over two decades in a criminal enterprise involving an alleged $150 million in bribes. Though Blatter himself was not indicted, investigators refused to rule him out of their enquiries.
At the same time, Swiss prosecutors announced their own investigation into the decision to award the rights to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, and are understood to be planning to pull Blatter in for questioning.
The pressure intensified when the United Kingdom's Serious Fraud Office announced on Friday that it was actively assessing material related to corruption within FIFA.
Despite the firestorm of scandal engulfing world soccer in the wake of the arrests, Blatter refused to stand aside and was re-elected for a fifth term in office last Friday. But his stunning resignation on Tuesday came after his right hand man, the FIFA secretary general Jérôme Valcke, was linked to a $10 million payment from the organisers of the South African World Cup to accounts controlled by a key voter, the longtime FIFA grandee Jack Warner.
The FBI indictment cites the $10 million payment as an alleged bribe in exchange for Warner's vote for the South African bid to host the 2010 World Cup. FIFA initially denied claims of Valcke's involvement, which emerged on Tuesday morning. But within hours a leaked letter surfaced on Twitter apparently showing that the secretary general was told about the payment, which was transferred to Warner via FIFA's own accounts.
The apparent implication of Valcke — Blatter's most senior lieutenant — in the payment of an alleged bribe brings the scandal closer to the door of the president's office than ever before.
Blatter's departure — after 17 years at the helm of world soccer — leaves the fate of Qatar's 2022 World Cup dream in greater jeopardy than it has ever faced.
Qatar's biggest rivals — the U.S. and Australia — are poised to jump straight back into the mix, should a new president decide to take the bold step of ordering a rerun of the vote on the hosting of the world's biggest sporting tournament.
Heidi Blake is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News based in London. She is the author of From Russia With Blood: The Kremlin's Ruthless Assassination Program and Vladimir Putin's Secret War on the West, and the co-author of The Ugly Game: The Qatari Plot to Buy the World Cup
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.