If the raging protests in the streets of São Paulo and Brazil’s three goals were not enough excitement for the first day of the World Cup on Thursday, a tweet by ESPN’s Jorge Ramos did the rest.
The reporter said that FIFA had asked the US organizing committee to “prepare” to host the 2022 World Cup, if Qatar’s very controversial hosting of the event is stripped from them.
Speculation that the venue for the tournament could change have increased in recent weeks after FIFA’s own president Sepp Blatter called the decision to award the event to Qatar “a mistake” and another round of allegations that the emirate had bribed its way to hosting the cup.
Ramos quickly removed the tweet — though not before it exploded on social media— and US Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati rushed to deny the report as “simply not true.” US officials said before that they would not take part in further bidding "until FIFA got its house in order," according to the Independent.
But that doesn’t mean that FIFA won’t at some point turn to the US for a last-minute fix to the 2022 World Cup disaster, and the organization has a bit of a reputation for scooping itself, then backtracking, and eventually confirming rumors.
That’s what it did, for instance, in the confusion over whether it might consider moving the tournament to the fall, to avoid Qatar’s grueling 120-degree summer — an option that would interrupt several European football seasons, pissing off players, fans, and sponsors across the board.
That possibility was accidentally revealed to the media by FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke — forcing the association to retract and then admit that, yeah, maybe that was not such a terrible idea. Soccer's leading body has now said it won’t make a decision on postponing the tournament to cooler months until the end of this year’s World Cup.
But the impossible heat was not even the worst thing about giving the tournament to Qatar.
The oil-rich country’s bid was surrounded by controversy from the start. There were allegations of bribery, not exactly a first in FIFA’s history, then questions about whether alcohol would be served in a country where it is heavily restricted, and speculation about how LGBT fans would be treated.
And preparations for the event have been accompanied by widespread abuse of migrant laborers. Qatar has reportedly invested some $100 billion in World Cup-related infrastructure — most of which is being built by migrants from south and southeast Asia.
'There has to be a vote. They have to drop it, nobody’s going to Doha.'
Last year, the Guardian published an investigation into 44 Nepalese construction workers who died in a two-month period of heart attacks, heart failure, and workplace incidents. The article suggested the exploitation of migrant workers amounted to “modern-day slavery.”
In a different report, the International Trade Union Confederation estimated that at least 4,000 workers could die in Qatar before the 2022 World Cup even kicks off.
But it is the newest investigation into corruption in the bid process that might finally kill Qatar’s host role.
'The reality is that the USA needs about three hours to prepare, only the time it takes to paint new white lines.'
The latest bribery allegations — a recurring phenomenon in the history of World Cup bids — followed an investigation by the Sunday Times of London, which obtained “a bombshell cache" of millions of emails, bank transfers, and other documents allegedly showing that Mohamed bin Hammam, a former member of FIFA’s executive committee, gave out more than $5 million in cash and gifts to soccer officials to help compensate for Qatar’s otherwise slim chances to win the cup.
Qatari officials have consistently denied all allegations. But a lot of people are not buying that.
“The crooks of FIFA took the money and they gave the cup to Doha, to play in the Gulf summer, which is insane. It can’t happen,” Andrew Jennings, an investigative reporter who has written extensively about alleged FIFA corruption, told VICE News. “There has to be a vote. They have to drop it, nobody’s going to Doha. Do you like stepping over the bodies of dead construction workers? No, you don’t.”
“It’s a disaster. And Blatter can’t find a way out because his boys took the bribes, and he can’t turn on his own executive committee and say, ‘the bastards took the money, we’re out of here,’ because that would look pretty bad, for him and for FIFA,” he added. “But they had to get out of it somehow, they had to find an exit door, and this only speeds up the process…. There will be a revote and I think the sponsors will insist it goes to America, where they can watch it.”
While Australia and Japan also competed for the coveted spot, the US — which last hosted the cup in 1994 — is probably the only country among these bidders with enough infrastructure to pull off such an event at the last minute. And, as Jennings noted, the sponsors would love it.
"The reality is that the US needs about three hours to prepare, only the time it takes to paint new white lines," Jennings said in response to Thursday's rumor. "You have everything else — stadia, hospitals, airports, fans. And they have done it before."
'A breach of the Code of Ethics appears to have been committed.'
But, as unpopular as Qatar's bid might have been, it is FIFA itself that most fans blame with the 2022 blunder (and many are not exactly thrilled with Russia 2018 either).
FIFA's reputation for corruption took yet another blow today when the federation announced that it had temporarily banned Franz Beckenbauer from taking part in any football-related activity, "on the grounds that a breach of the Code of Ethics appears to have been committed and a decision on the main issue may not be taken early enough," according to a FIFA statement.
Beckenbauer, a former executive at the federation and a German football icon, came under scrutiny as part of the latest investigation into Qatar's winning bid. Michael Garcia, FIFA’s chief investigator and a former US attorney, is currently examining the corruption claims and will submit a report in around six weeks time. FIFA's ethics commission said today that Beckenbauer failed to collaborate with investigators.
Beckenbauer reportedly claimed that he did not respond because he didn't understand all the questions posed to him in English. FIFA said the commission repeatedly requested his collaboration, and that it provided questions in both English and German.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi