How Fifa's corruption came to a head at the 2010 World Cup in Johannesburg
At Fifa Congress, the annual jamboree of world football’s 200 or so member associations, the order of the day is always equality.
According to its statutes, it is – on paper anyway – a perfect democracy, whose very equality makes for perennially imperfect results. The corrupt, the weak, the misguided are corralled at each congress by football’s strongmen – usually the Fifa president – into making decisions that serve their own political or financial interests.
But this idea of equality and fairness, the notion that no delegate is more important than another, is nevertheless fed down from the President’s podium and repeated again and again. It’s the abiding principle of football’s governing body (along with all the grants, long lunches and solidarity payments), but one I never took too seriously until I was standing at a urinal in Johannesburg’s Sandton Convention Centre.
To my left that afternoon in June 2010 was Ricardo Teixeira, the massively corrupt head of the Brazilian football federation and one of the 24 tin gods who sat on the Fifa Executive Committee. One man along, to my right, was Roman Abramovich, Chelsea owner and Russian billionaire. Behind us African football delegates crowded around to shake hands and pose for photos with the oligarch as dead-eyed crewcut bodyguards looked on, waiting for their boss to finish pissing, before they shepherded him wordlessly past the small crowd and to a sink and out of that awkward place.
Teixeira giggled and spoke to one of the Africans as he heaved up his pants to his protruding belly, before putting his arm around his friend. They posed together, there was a camera flash and Teixeira too was gone – without even washing his hands.
I marvelled at the scene. It seemed to embody every single caricature one could possibly have about Fifa: the fawning African delegates, the football boss with dirty hands, the billionaire. But what, exactly, was Roman Abramovich – a club owner rather than a federation head – doing there? We soon found out.
2010 was the year of the race to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Ten candidates – Australia, England, Netherlands/Belgium, Indonesia (who pulled out in March), Japan, South Korea, Qatar, Russia, Spain/Portugal and the USA – were involved in the bidding process. The more the race unfolded and the closer it got to the December 2 bid D-day, the less it became about a country’s football culture or preparedness to host football’s greatest show and more about the whims of Fifa’s 24-man executive committee; their friendships, alliances and personal and political interests. The whiff of corruption and self-interest was never far away.
In June the axis of Planet Fifa tipped south and the bid teams converged on South Africa for the Fifa Congress and the World Cup. They weren’t supposed to be campaigning during the tournament, but everyone was lobbying and making their case. At the Congress, on the eve of the tournament, Fifa staged a bid expo – the one allowance to its proscription of bid activities – at which ambassadors and lobbyists met with delegates.
Bid teams drew in delegates to their stalls by bringing along members of their football aristocracies such as David Beckham, Ruud Gullit and Luis Figo. Delegates would pose for photos or exchange the odd word whilst having brochures and trinkets pressed into their hands. Where there was no such football heritage, bids invented it – Gabriel Batistuta and Ronald de Boer were Qatar ambassadors because they had both briefly played there as their careers wound down.
And Russia? Russia, which hadn’t qualified for the finals, didn’t bother with old pros. Instead they brought Abramovich, a man who, through his ownership of Chelsea, symbolised the country’s relationship with the world game: unimaginable wealth, outrageous largesse, fuck you money. The message was plain and clear for all to see: we can buy anything.
Most journalists were there for the football, but I was in South Africa for the intrigue. The 2018/22 bid race was the biggest story of my career and I knew its ins and outs intimately. I’d already been to most of the bid nations and seen what they had to offer. I challenged Fifa on the peculiarities of its rules or lack of them. I tried to second guess the whims of the 24 voters, but it was very difficult to know quite what was going on. Fifa was a world of rumour and counter-rumour; nothing was ever as it seemed. Because I was in love with the game, my instinct was always driven by optimism and I felt the best bids – England and the USA – would win. In that sense I was hopelessly naive.
The tournament was mostly sterile and uninspiring, played out to the never-ending drone of the vuvuzela. Because South Africa to its white population is a nation dominated by fear of violence and crime and those who can afford to do so drive or are driven everywhere, the sort of vibrant match-going atmosphere around stadiums was mostly absent. The exception, in my experience, was at Ellis Park in downtown Johannesburg, where thousands of Nigerian immigrants gathered playing music, singing and dancing ahead of the Argentina v Nigeria group match. Inside the old stadium, however, most of the crowd were white and the trumpets ceased; few of these fans could ever afford the price of entry.
My friend, the veteran investigative reporter and bête noire of Fifa Andrew Jennings, was 6000 miles away at home, but very much in South Africa in spirit. We conversed often via Skype. “Don’t trip over the sacks of cash!” he’d warn cheerfully. In Sandton’s main bookstore his magnum opus on Fifa corruption, Foul, was a bestseller. Were delegates to Fifa Congress buying it as a companion to the main event or was there merely truth in the old publishers’ adage that people like reading about themselves?
At least four of the individuals Jennings made serious allegations about in his book – charges that included bribery, money laundering, debt-dodging and subterfuge – were seen working the floor of the congress, apparently as bid consultants to a couple of the teams vying to host the 2018 and 2022 finals. The Australian lobbyist Fedor Radmann, one of Jennings’s targets, was there beside Franz Beckenbauer and was seen brazenly leading him to the Russian bid stalls at the expo, despite being contracted to the Australian World Cup bid.
Despite Fifa’s edict, bids took differing approaches to South Africa. Russia kept a low profile beyond the congress, although Abramovich and Vyacheslav Koloskov, a former Fifa Exco member whose tenure dated back to the Soviet era, were working behind the scenes. Qatar brought a huge delegation and crown prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani was very visible at many of the main matches. But its huge bid delegation and their entourage were largely redundant and left to their own devices during football’s greatest party. Far from the conservative stereotype, many of this posse liked to party, sometimes too much. On one occasion an internal diplomatic incident was narrowly averted after someone associated with the bid spent the night in a Johannesburg lap dancing bar and brought his favourite stripper to the VIP section of the following day’s match. Only a vigilante junior official prevented the next Emir coming into direct contact with a siliconed go-go dancer.
Perhaps Qatar had learned from their experience in South Africa the previous December when Fifa had hosted a media expo for competing bid nations at Leeuwenhof, the residence of the premier of the Western Cape. At every conference and gathering throughout the bid process Qatar 2022 were conspicuous by their presence: they always had the biggest exhibition space, the largest delegation, the biggest stars. But now they had a delegation of nine, the same three metre square booth as everyone else, the same sized brochure.
Ronald de Boer had been an outstanding and versatile attacking midfielder and part of Ajax’s brilliant young mid-1990s team. He had spent a season at Barcelona and then three years at Glasgow Rangers before playing out his career in Qatar from 2004 to 2008. Now he was a Qatar 2022 bid ambassador, but he was no David Beckham. As the press trampled over each other to get a glimpse of the former England captain at the England 2018 booth he cut a slightly forlorn figure on the Qatar stand.
Qatar’s Iraqi-American media officer, Phaedra Almajid, beckoned me over. Would I like to hear Ronald’s views on a World Cup for “the entire Middle East’”? As it happened we’d had that very same conversation a few days earlier at the Soccerex exhibition in Johannesburg. I’d also had a one-on-one interview with the bid chairman, the 21-year-old Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the youngest son of the Emir, at the same event and an informal audience with the chief executive Hassan al-Thawadi. Qatar 2022’s ubiquity had its pitfalls for a media officer tasked with getting it wall to wall coverage day in day out.
Qatar 2022’s message was lost in a storm of Beckham-mania. Little did I know then that Phaedra’s boss’s bosses would hold her responsible for a lack of press coverage from this particular media circus, setting in motion a string of events that led to her dismissal from the bid.
This would be a near-catastrophic mistake by the Qataris. But the consequences of it lay long in the future when she would turn whistleblower, alleging that the bid had offered inducements to African voters.
England held a gala lunch for the Fifa Exco hosted by the FA president Prince William and Prince Harry along with the acting FA chairman Roger Burden. Beckham, Arsène Wenger and the London mayor Boris Johnson were also present. Several of the 24 Fifa Exco members attended. When other bids threatened to complain to Fifa, England 2018 argued that it wasn’t in breach of Fifa’s rules because it was merely being hosted by the FA “in honour of their bid” and bid branding would not be in evidence. That the bid was actually being run by the FA didn’t seem to matter. Claiming a separation of duties between different parts of the same organisation would be a tactic both successful and unsuccessful bids would continually fall back on.
Beckham and the princes were used extensively by the England bid in South Africa and beyond. An audience with the prince was a prize dangled in front of the Exco members without too much consideration seemingly given to the integrity of whom the future monarch and his brother were likely to meet. Mohamed bin Hammam declined the offer as well as an invitation to Downing Street to meet the new Prime Minister, David Cameron. But others liked having their ego stroked. The rapacious and massively corrupt Conmebol president, Nicolás Leoz, was one such person. He met with Prince William for breakfast the morning before the vote and claimed to have been invited to his wedding with Kate Middleton the following May. He was ‘unfortunately’ unable to attend due to the scheduled Conmebol Congress, although Clarence House immediately rubbished the idea.
Mixing up the heir to the British throne with Fifa’s crooks and hangers on was a risky strategy. The FA had already had its fingers burned on numerous occasions. The corrupt Trinidadian Exco member Jack Warner had grandstanded on numerous occasions as an outspoken critic of the English bid. A Mulberry handbag given to his wife by the bid was somehow “a symbol of derision, betrayal and embarrassment for me and my family”. The incident, claimed the shameless Warner, represented “an all-time low”– perhaps because it wasn’t stuffed with cash. The more England tried to suck up to Warner, the more volatile he became.
Often because of the hysterical Warner, the inherently decent FA and bid chairman Lord David Triesman had become the target for misplaced tabloid ire because of the “underperforming” England bid. His enemies rounded against him and a domestic media desperate for stories lapped it up. The English football media had been slow to take to him anyway. Rather than spit soundbites, Triesman had a habit of articulating his position as if still on a university lecture podium. Among more cerebral journalists this was acceptable, but many others bitched that he “talked down” to them. The Times harped that he was “smug and aloof’.
Everything about Triesman’s treatment was obscene. He was hated and undermined at every step by the Premier League, who wanted a weak FA. Meanwhile nobody in international football took him seriously because he wouldn’t play the Fifa game of lavish hospitality, loosely awarded ‘development grants’ and favours for friends in high places.
A month out from the South Africa World Cup I saw him at Wembley. Did England risking failing, I asked, for being too clean?
The chairman, as ever, was forthright. “I don’t believe you can ever be too clean,” he said. “I don’t mean people shouldn’t fight hard or be politically unrealistic but I’ve said from the beginning that we would not try to earn it by means we would be ashamed of. We just wouldn’t do it. When people say, ‘You’re all very gentlemanly, you play by the rules,’ I’m afraid I can’t take that as a criticism. I’d rather people knew we did it the right way and I do believe we’ll succeed in that way.”
A few days later, Triesman – the man who had very publicly declared his straight bat – was about to be assailed by one of the dirtiest tricks of what would become a very dirty race. The Mail on Sunday used a covert recording of Triesman slurring Russia’s attempts to host the World Cup, repeating rumoured allegations that they were going to cut a deal to guarantee Spain’s withdrawal from the contest in return for helping Spain “fix” the South Africa World Cup. He was taped accusing the Latin American voters of possessing “a history of extraordinary corruption” and spoke of one member wanting an “honorary knighthood, which we can’t, which we’ll never give”. He added that he thought his ‘friendship’ with Michel Platini, the president of the European ruling body Uefa, would help England’s bid. “But there are people who are probably corrupt in Europe as well,” he warned. He made his comments to a friend – a former civil servant named Melissa Jacobs, who had worked under him when he was a minister – over coffee in Marylebone High Street several weeks earlier. The conversation was taped without his knowledge.
By mid-morning on the day of publication, Triesman had accepted the inevitable and tendered his resignation. The gnomic Geoff Thompson – whom Triesman had replaced as FA chairman to great resentment – succeeded him as bid chairman. Later that day he relinquished his position as FA chairman too.
There was nevertheless something very strange about the story. Jacobs, it emerged, had set up the sting herself and hawked the “evidence” – the secret recording, the long lens shot – around various tabloid papers before the Mail on Sunday paid her. But tabloid stings never work like that, given the huge legal costs when things go wrong. Almost any editor would insist on having total control of a story of such magnitude from inception to publication. A number of newspapers wouldn’t touch the story.
And then there was Jacobs herself, a curious character who had spent the weeks leading up to publication in a specialist clinic in the US. She later said she was “devastated” by what had happened, and was left unable to eat or sleep. “I was crying all the time… I really didn’t know if I could live with myself… I just felt so guilty. It had gone so wrong, basically.” What exactly was her motivation? According to one report she planned on using her tabloid windfall to fund a clinic for people with OCD, although that never materialised.
But it seemed from the outset that something more sinister had happened. A tawdry blog emerged entitled “Sex, Love and OCD”, in which a civil servant purporting to be Jacobs recounted an affair with a minister (“let's call him Mr T”) in excruciating detail (“he was an extremely good kisser, which for some reason I didn't expect.” “He loved caressing my body.” “He also insisted on pleasuring me orally.”) This was picked up by several tabloid newspapers before being taken down; yet its details bore no relation to the facts even as published by the Mail on Sunday and was almost certainly a fake designed to inflict maximum embarrassment upon Triesman. Fake websites in very similar formats appeared throughout the bid race and beyond.
In private England’s bid muttered darkly about Russian involvement behind the sting. “If they can poison a spy with radiation in central London, they can pull off a trick like that,” said one official, alluding to the 2006 murder of the MI6 informant Alexander Litvinenko. Yet the reality was likely more prosaic. Triesman had upset a lot of people in his 28 months as FA chairman, including some well-versed in dark arts. Revenge is a dish best served cold. But who had served it?
Triesman wasn’t the only one to be on the receiving end of dirty tricks that spring.
A month earlier another fake website appeared featuring a supposed interview with Andrew Jennings. A similar version had previously appeared in February and was circulated by its creator among British sports journalists.
The website, which contained two hoax interviews with Jennings, used him as a mouthpiece to claim that Qatar and Russia had cut a deal, allowing Russia to host the 2018 finals in return for guaranteeing Qatar European support for 2022. The ‘interview’ went onto make lurid allegations about vote-buying and key members of the two bid teams, even alleging that Russia’s bid leaders were members of the FSB – the successor to the KGB. There was also a reference to England 2018’s World Cup bid chairman Lord Triesman with anti-Semitic undertones.
The website was registered in Panama and hosted in Russia and the website’s creator clearly wanted to cover their tracks. Such hoax sites are often hosted in Russia and China, where defamation laws are more lax.
Jennings was furious at the invention, telling me from his home in Cumbria that it was an “entirely fake, fictitious, fabricated creation”.
“Every word is invented,” he said. “Of course I've never given these interviews. And the author is too unimaginative to incorporate things I have said or written elsewhere.”
Asked who would come up with such a creation, Jennings alleged that it was a highly remunerated consultant to the rival Australian bid. “There is no doubt in my mind that he is behind this. It is a blatant and disgraceful attempt to discredit me and the Qatar World Cup bid,” he said. “Every few months the demented idiot takes aim at me. I’ve seen them all in 42 years in this trade. Including real conmen when I covered crime. He’s just another conman. End of story.”
Why would someone who was being paid a seven-figure sum to advise a World Cup bid come up with such a low-rent effort? It seemed to defy reason. But the consultant, Jennings told me was “Nasty and mad with it. Everything a reporter ever wanted to write about.” So I emailed the consultant and the Australian World Cup bid to see if he was really behind it.
Australia’s head of media Rod Allen called me at first denying all knowledge of any website but then saying that you only had to look at the website to see that it was “entirely fabricated”.
“But I thought you knew nothing about it?”
“I wasn’t being literal,” came the reply down the long distance phone line. He called me back late at night in Australia, denouncing Jennings – whose name I never mentioned to him – as “an entirely discredited journalist”. This was defamatory nonsense, but ironic too, since members of Australia’s bid had been instructed to read copies of Jennings’ book, Foul, to brush up on their knowledge of Fifa.
The response came via a pair of aggressive letters from the libel lawyers, Schillings. Of course, nothing happened, except publication of a watered-down story. But strange things continued to happen. Within an hour of first emailing my questions to the Australian bid there were various attempts to hack dormant social media and blogging accounts belonging to me. These attempts continued for the rest of the year. Veiled threats came from fake twitter accounts. A few weeks later my bank called me to check whether I had booked first-class flights from a Hungarian airport on my credit card. Not me, I told them, but somebody had. The bank reimbursed the money and sent me a replacement card.
Looking back years later at screen grabs of the fake site, amid the bullshit and the bile, it was remarkable how prescient the fake interviews were. “23 blazers, most of them corrupt to the bone, plus the lead criminal, Godfather Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter - the now embattled Patriarch. They will ‘vote’ and the vote goes to… QATAR and RUSSIA,” it predicted. It spoke of an alliance of Asian Fifa Exco members being at the heart of Bin Hammam’s strategy for Qatar 2022, Michel Platini being important for his European plans, and African voters being bedazzled on junkets to Doha. Qatar at that stage had 8 of the 13 votes needed to win, it claimed, while Russia had enough in the bag to win in the first round. Blatter, claimed the website, was running scared of Bin Hammam’s attempts to become Fifa president and was trying to strike a deal with the Emir to let Qatar have the World Cup in order for him to stay on beyond 2011.
Rightly dismissed as rubbish at the time, what’s clear looking back is that whoever faked it either had their finger on the pulse or a crystal ball at their disposal. “If on December 2, 2010, you hear that Qatar won the 2022 World Cup bid, run for cover,” it warned. “Fifa won't survice [sic] that, nor will the most corrupt Fifa President who ever lived. Besides that, he may be in jail by then… Blatter is history.”
Australia, which had its own lounge to entertain guests at the Sandton Convention Centre adjacent to the Michelangelo Hotel where Fifa’s Exco were housed, was in some respects very visible during the World Cup. However, submerged in domestic problems over access to stadiums from rival football codes and not helped by the Socceroos’ poor campaign in the World Cup, they seemed reluctant to put their heads above the parapet. Indeed, South Africa was a disaster for the bid. In a game that was often personality-driven, Australia's team were disliked on the circuit, projecting a sense of entitlement and arrogance that seemed to stem from its chairman Frank Lowy and consultants. One European federation head got so fed up with Lowy’s toadying to Blatter – which included him interrupting Fifa congress to pay tribute to the president – that he vowed to ensure personally that none of Europe’s Exco members voted for his bid.
At that stage I was persona non-grata with the bid after asking the sort of difficult questions that its largely supine domestic media never dared. The publication I worked for published a bid index in which Australia had dropped from second to seventh over the course of three cataclysmic months, while tricky questions about its controversial bid consultants never went down well, not least with a media chief who took every criticism as a personal insult.
At the Asian Football Confederation Congress on the eve of the World Cup I bumped into the bid’s CEO Ben Buckley and we agreed that this impasse was helping no-one. We shook hands and agreed to meet at Australia’s training base in Ruimsig to talk further. At this stage Lowy joined and Buckley introduced us. As he shook my hand I could feel his go limp in mine.
“You! You’re an irresponsible journalist! You’re a liar!” Lowy screamed. Buckley tried to interject that I was only trying to smooth things over, but Lowy was away, ranting and raving as only a self-entitled billionaire can. “You write lies! You say we’re in trouble, that we’re going to lose. It’s lies. Lies!” He was pacing the floor of the congress now, raging like Rumpelstiltskin; other delegates looking on perplexed. I asked him if what he said was on the record, while Buckley looked on, powerless and aghast. “Write what you like! It’s all lies!” he yelled. Six months later, which of us had the better grasp of the ‘truth’ would knock Lowy sideways.
Australia frankly had much bigger problems than me. A few weeks later an investigation published by Australia’s Age newspaper alleged the country’s bid team bought Paspaley pearl necklaces worth more than A$50,000 for the wives of many of the 24 Fifa Exco members. The bid team also stood accused of offering an all-expenses-paid trip to the Guatemalan Fifa executive committee member Rafael Salguero and his wife to Australia to mark his birthday earlier in the year. Fifa’s rules of bid conduct prohibited more than token gifts being given by bid teams.
Perhaps most damaging were allegations that it misled the Australian government, which had set aside a tax-payer funded budget of A$45.6million. A bid document seen by the Age contained two different budgets outlining how the World Cup bid government grant was to be spent. It suggested that it used this method of accounting to hide how much two of its external bid consultants – Fedor Radmann and Peter Hargitay – stood to earn. In addition, a third bid consultant, Andreas Abold, was said to be taking a A$3million payment for his work in putting together the Australian bid book.
The bid didn’t deny the allegations; they merely said that they had adhered to Fifa’s rules. The necklaces had been handed out at Fifa Congress in Sydney two years earlier before the bid was launched. However – and this was unclear at the time – Warner’s wife, Maureen, had never received one. Warner, as was his way, hectored and badgered his friend Hargitay for the missing pendant, which had been belatedly handed over the following summer when the bid race was well under way. It had a retail value of A$2000, around five times that of the Mulberry handbag given to him by the England bid. When news of that broke, it was somehow “a symbol of derision, betrayal and embarrassment” for Warner and his family. Now he remained tight-lipped on the Australian pearls.
The Australian bid responded by launching an attack on the journalists Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker who uncovered the stories, dismissing their work as “innuendo” based on “unsourced gossip and insinuations [that] have no substance whatsoever.” The pair were Australia’s most respected investigative reporters, with McKenzie twice winning the Walkley Prize, the country’s highest journalism award. FFA launched a libel action – withdrawn months after the end of the bid process – that Rod Allen, the bid’s thuggish head of media, bragged would “flush out and expose their source and the source's motives which will not reflect well’.”
Allen repeatedly hinted that it was his popular predecessor Bonita Mersiades – who had been sacked in January for “being too honest” – who was the source of this story and others that would come out over following months, claims she denied. The reality was that it could have come from a number of sources. There was deep unease in Australia at the direction of the bid and some of the personalities involved. Mersiades reflected that unease when she talked with me and other journalists, but gagged by confidentiality agreements and – I assumed – a sense of loyalty to a project she had ploughed a lot of personal capital into never provided any evidence that would have damaged the bid. Others were less reticent and multiple sources within Australia – from the civil service, rival football codes, FFA and media – were leaking and briefing against the bid throughout the remainder of the year. This merely heightened the paranoia of a rapidly failing project.
While emblematic of the hoops bids leapt through to find favour with the Fifa Exco, the case of the pearl necklaces was really just a footnote in the miserable story of a doomed bid. By the time the controversy had erupted it was clear to most observers that Australia stood no chance of winning the World Cup bid. Alas, the bid didn’t see it that way. It existed in such a bubble of conceit and self-entitlement that its executives truly believed it was theirs to take until the end.
Australia’s World Cup bid was not the only doomed project. Netherlands/Belgium had a joint bid for the 2018 tournament and while the premise of every host city being within a maximum of few hours train ride of each other and fans fuelled by Europe’s most potent beers and cheeses was highly attractive, the bid team seemed to be there mostly for the ride. One of their press officers would appear in media zones across South Africa, but he had no news about the bid. Instead, he would enthusiastically direct me to his personal blog, which was devoted to eating his way around South Africa’s best restaurants.
Japan’s cheerily hapless bid at least steered clear of the toxicity that infected some of its rivals. It had, on paper, a lot going for it. The country already had in place a world class sporting, transport and communications infrastructure. The forces of Japanese business and politics were united behind the bid. It had its own Fifa Executive Committee member. Alas, it had also just hosted the tournament, jointly with South Korea in 2002.
Its bid team tried to put a positive spin on this, arguing that the two finals would be 20 years apart; that the previous one had been as co-host and 2022 was therefore different. But it was difficult to see beyond the widely held belief that their main motivation to bid was because their neighbours and perennial rivals South Korea were also pitching for the same tournament. That bid at least had its vague, grandiose and somewhat fanciful plans for reunification with North Korea and was seemingly tied to the political ambitions of Chung Mong-joon, the president of the South Korean football federation. What did Japan’s bid stand for?
In September 2010, two months after the end of the World Cup, Japan’s bid team came to London to sell their bid and a revolutionary concept to the perennially sceptical European media. In the basement of a Soho sushi restaurant the head of the FA, Junji Ogura, was joined by the sports marketing veteran Patrick Nally, who had joined the bid on a consultancy basis.
Nally was an expert salesman who had helped make Fifa rich in the 1970s and 1980s. Now he seemed to struggle with selling Japan’s vision to the world. “It is difficult to communicate to Fifa Exco members exactly what this bid means,” he admitted. “Obviously going to a country and looking at the stadiums and infrastructure and all the normal things is clearly understood. But there is a projection required, that these decision-makers have to put themselves in a position in 2022 and understand what the world will look like [then]. Fifa has been totally reliant for 35 years on commercial sponsorship and broadcast income, and has to obviously consider what that is going to be [in 2022].”
The bid’s attempt to broaden these income streams centred on a new technology being developed by Sony that would allow the World Cup matches to be broadcast from Japan to stadiums globally. The games would be shown as 3D holograms on pitches in stadiums like Wembley, the Stade de France and the Maracanã. Instead of having ticketing revenue from just one stadium, argued the Japan bid, Fifa could cash in on income from anything up to 400 stadiums.
“I visited the members – my colleagues – with our proposal and it is unique,” said Ogura. “Only Japan is proposing to use technologies for the World Cup.”
It was – once we’d understood what Ogura was trying to articulate – a piece of genius. Imagine ticket revenues from combined crowds of 20 million, spread over 64 games! Imagine being able to see a World Cup match without getting on a plane! Imagine watching a holographic version of the heir to Lionel Messi or Kaká!
Unfortunately there was a significant problem: the technology to carry out this proposal did not exist in 2010 and there didn’t seem to be a timeline as to when it might be ready. “[It] is a very difficult thing to communicate, but it has to be done by presentation in accordance with Fifa statutes and regulations,” admitted Nally.
But then it was a bid race in which Qatar were pitching to host the World Cup Final in a city that hadn’t yet been built, albeit that its own spin doctors presented the future in less conceptual terms.
“It’s a communications challenge,” added Nally for what seemed like the tenth time. “But we are working on it.”
He was old enough and experienced enough, however, to understand that Japan never stood a chance.
For 18 months I covered the World Cup bid race as closely as any journalist on the planet. It was an obsession and took over my life. Over the course of these travels, I interviewed, came face to face with and talked to hundreds of people: from Vladimir Putin to supporters on the streets of Soweto; from Sepp Blatter and most of his Fifa executive colleagues to footballers such as David Beckham and Gabriel Batistuta. But because politics underpins everything in Fifa our conversations were invariably driven by what happened off the pitch rather than on it.
That was certainly the case in South Africa, which I left at the end of the group stage to return home to my heavily pregnant wife and son in England. By then most of the bids had also left and the tournament had thus diminished in interest for me. Uniquely for a World Cup I recall very little of what happened on the pitch – Siphiwe Tshabalala’s goal in the opening match; Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama and Lionel Messi having a one-on-one duel in their group game; North Korea’s Ji Yun-nam slaloming through the Brazilian defence on a freezing night at Ellis Park were a few of the exceptions– and my abiding memories are mostly of being in hotel lobbies, media centres and conference halls. To that end, my experience probably differed little from the World Cup bid race’s men of destiny, the Executive Committee. For them the tournament had marked a turning point and Russia emerged as the clear and unequivocal favourite to win the 2018 bid.
Shortly before the finals had kicked off, Vladimir Putin – then Russia’s Prime Minister – had taken a personal interest in the bid and stepped up its work. “Putin was a pretty reluctant backer of Russia 2018 but it got to the point where the country faced serious humiliation,” an ex-MI6 source, believed to be Christopher Steele – he of the subsequent Trump dossier – testified in written evidence submitted to the British Parliament in 2013. “Putin does not like football. He was the Prime Minister and not president at the time of the bid. He was involved in the Sochi Olympics bid and turned up and lobbied people, but he was a reluctant backer of 2018. The key thing with Russia was six months before the bid, it got to the point where the country feared the humiliation of being beaten and had to do something.
“There was a bit of a panic in mid-2010 when Putin dragged in all sorts of capabilities… They suddenly woke up to the fact that this wasn’t going well and they had to do something about it. And that’s when… the operation was cranked up into the operation which turned it round… Prior to that [Vitaly] Mutko [Russia’s Fifa executive committee member] had been allowed to get on with it… But thoughts of legacy kicked in. ‘I can’t lose the World Cup. I can’t watch it happen. I’ve got to do something about it’.”
A central part of the strategy was to pull in the influence of the oligarchs, of which Abramovich was the key figure. The source said: “When Abramovich turned up in South Africa and started glad-handing people, that was a turning point. Abramovich got dragged into it quite late. I don’t think he was heavily involved till mid-2010. There was a change of gear in the operation in about May 2010.”
At that fateful Fifa Congress in Johannesburg, an England 2018 employee recalled watching Abramovich walking out of the hall with Blatter and going upstairs to some private meeting and thinking, “We are fucked.”
Five months after the tournament I came face to face again with many of the characters I had seen in South Africa in Zurich, as the Fifa Exco met to make its decision on the World Cup hosts for 2018 and 2022. It was like the Davos of world football. There was David Beckham, demure in his Paul Smith suit and face flecked with designer stubble. There were his former teammates, Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo. Elsewhere were Iker Casillas, Park Ji-sung, Landon Donovan, Andrey Arshavin, Tim Cahill, Johan Cruyff, Ruud Gullit, Sir Bobby Charlton: heroes divided by nationality and generation. Prince William kept the composure of a future king; the Emir of Qatar stood silently while his elegant wife, Sheikha Moza, dazzled delegates. The Prime Ministers of Britain, Korea, Spain, Portugal and Belgium, along with Australia’s Governor General and Bill Clinton were all in attendance.
Shortly before 5pm on Thursday 2 December 2010 Blatter announced the biggest shock in the history of football. From a sealed envelope handed to him by a Swiss notary, he revealed that the tiny desert emirate of Qatar had won the right to host the 2022 World Cup finals. A few minutes earlier Blatter had unveiled Russia as the stage for the 2018 tournament.
Hours later we sat in the same room as Putin held court. He had flown to Switzerland as soon as victory for Russia was confirmed. For longer than an hour he answered our questions on everything from Fifa corruption and racism in Russia to Wikileaks, which had emerged for the first time just days earlier. Occasionally there would be a question about the logistics of hosting a World Cup.
Who would pay for the new stadiums? one of our number asked. Putin grinned and gestured forward to a member of the audience. There was a familiar stubbled face, casually dressed and unassuming; it might have been one of the middle-aged ex-players who had come along to cheer the bid on, but it definitely wasn’t. Roman Abramovich gave a knowing smile and waved at his Prime Minister as if to gesture that it wouldn’t be a problem. He knew, better than anybody, his duties as a good Russian.