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With FIFA Indictment, U.S. Takes Aim at Russian and Qatari World Cups

The United States is taking aim at future World Cups in Russia and Qatar.


The U.S. Justice Department has dropped the hammer on FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. Prosecutors early Wednesday indicted nine of FIFA’s current and former officials and five business executives on charges of racketeering, wire fraud, and money-laundering conspiracy. But it appears law enforcement agents have eyes on bigger prizes: the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The awards of both tournaments were clouded by allegations that officials from international soccer federations, which oversee the sport at a regional level and decide host nations for the World Cup, accepted bribes from Russia, Qatar, and their proxies. Swiss authorities, who arrested seven officials in Zurich ahead of FIFA’s annual meeting, announced Wednesday an investigation into criminal mismanagement and money laundering in connection with both votes.

The fledgling inquiry into the 2022 tournament shines a spotlight on the increasingly uncomfortable relationship between Qatar and the United States. Washington has largely ignored allegations of Qatari support for Hamas, the Gaza-based militant group. A recent Foreign Policy investigation also found funding ties between Qatar and Islamic extremists throughout the Middle East. Khalid al-Attiyah, Qatar’s foreign minister, wrote in September 2014 his country “does not fund or support terrorist organizations, and we have taken elaborate steps to block the funding of these groups by private Qatari citizens.”

Chase Untermeyer, Washington’s former ambassador to Doha, told FP that strategic interests have kept the United States from publicly rebuking Qatar for these connections. Qatar is home to al-Udeid Air Base, located south of Doha, which houses the U.S. Air Force’s Central Command headquarters and is a key supply link to Iraq and Afghanistan. A number of American universities also have branches in Doha.

“There will be the continuity of the relationship,” predicted Untermeyer, who served under former President George W. Bush. He noted that the Swiss government — not the United States — is leading the investigation into the 2022 World Cup.

“My guess is Qatar will see the indictments in the context of soccer, not in the broader context of the relationship,” Untermeyer said Wednesday.

But Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, an expert on Qatar at Rice University, told FP that the United States can now use the indictment as leverage to win concessions with the peninsular monarchy. “The Qataris will defend their conduct of the 2022 World Cup bid, but will not want it to develop into a defining flash point in bilateral relations,” she said.

The Qatar award has been especially controversial. Numerous reports indicate that the oil-rich, boomtown nation, which is the size of Connecticut and has just 278,000 citizens, is using slave labor from Nepal, Sri Lanka, and other poor countries to build venues connected to the tournament. The Nepalese foreign employment promotion board found that one of its citizens working in Qatar dies every two days.

Qatar is also an odd choice because of the timing of the event. World Cups are traditionally held during the summer so they don’t disrupt national leagues like England’s Premier League and Germany’s Bundesliga, both of which generate billions of dollars in annual revenue. But because of scorching June and July temperatures in the Persian Gulf, embattled FIFA President Sepp Blatter — who is facing a re-election vote this Friday — announced this year that the 2022 tournament would be moved to the winter. UEFA, Europe’s soccer governing body, begrudgingly accepted this compromise. On Wednesday, it called for the vote on Blatter’s future to be postponed.

In a statement, FIFA said it “welcomes actions that can help contribute to rooting out any wrongdoing in football.”

The American charging documents don’t deal with the bidding process for the next two World Cups, but they do show how money can influence soccer at the regional level. According to the Justice Department, $110 million in bribes were paid in connection with next year’s Copa America tournament, which features teams from CONCACAF, the organization that oversees soccer in North and Central America, as well as the Caribbean. South American teams are also participating.

In 2016, the so-called Copa Cup will be held in the United States for the first time, but there’s no obvious link between the scandal and the decision to host it in the United States; rather, it’s widely believed to be a one-time event.

Those payoffs are part of $150 million in illicit payments to FIFA officials over a 21-year period, said Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The indictments are “the beginning of our effort, not the end,” added acting U.S. Attorney Kelly T. Currie of the Eastern District of New York, where the charges were filed.

“FIFA has a lot of soul-searching to do as it tries to monitor itself and improve the way it does business,” Lynch said Wednesday when asked about the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.

Photo credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images