A World Cup of spies
A new Danish documentary looks into Russia and England's use of national intelligence services in the battle to win the World Cup hosting rights. But, according to England's former World Cup consultant Peter Hargitay, who was present at the film premiere in Copenhagen, other football nations have also turned to professional spies for allies.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union intelligence service, KGB, and its British counterpart, MI6, were known to have some of the world's best spies. A reputation they got partly because author Ian Fleming used mainly Soviet and British spies as role models when, in 1953, he wrote the first of his famous novels about the fictional British agent 007, James Bond.
When The Sunday Times, four years after FIFA's double election in 2010 of World Cup hosts in 2018 and 2022, revealed that both the Russian winners and the English losers had used professional spies from their respective national intelligence services FSB and MI6 to keep an eye on their opponents’ World Cup campaigns, it was not just another confirmation that sports and politics are inextricably linked.
The revelation of the use of spies was also one of the first official signs that the relationship between the upcoming World Cup host country Russia and many western democracies has turned chilly this decade. A political and diplomatic coldness that is apparently so well rooted that international news media refer to it as a new cold war, as recently seen in the case of Russia's alleged interference in the United States’ presidential elections in 2016.
However, when the spy case of football was first revealed in 2014 in a British parliamentary hearing on England's lost World Cup host campaign, it was overshadowed by the FBI investigation into the major corruption scandal in FIFA, that has so far resulted in charges against more than 40 senior football leaders in a number of countries.
In that light, the new Danish documentary film, 'A World Cup of Spies', which premiered in Copenhagen recently, is both historically and currently highly relevant. Because when Russia next week welcomes the world to the FIFA World Cup, it is the fruit of the spies' battle that the debuting World Cup hosts are attempting to harvest.
A systematic intelligence
The spies' battle for the World Cup hosting rights began in 2008 when the former Labor Minister and unionist Lord David Triesman was politically appointed chairman of both the English Football Association (FA) and England's bid for the World Cup.
Lord Triesman was the former Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Therefore, the British hoped that his political contacts would be able to convince a number of the representatives from the former British colonies among the 24 voting members of FIFA's executive committee to choose England as a host country for the World Cup in 2018.
But soon afterwards, when Lord Triesman heard that one of England's strongest competitors, Russia, had established an intelligence unit in London, allegedly tasked with spying on the English bid, the English chose to do the same, The Sunday Times wrote. And not only on the Russians but also on other competitors for the World Cup. This is now confirmed by Lord Triesman in this new documentary:
"When people talk about gathering intelligence, I think it is really important to be precise about what you mean by the terms. On occasion, we did it by picking up information that we just stumbled across. It was on occasions more systematic," says the UK top politician, who in the film also explains why he found it necessary to initiate intelligence cooperations with former MI6 agents and British embassies abroad to ensure England the coveted hosting of the World Cup.
"We did take some measures in case we were being spied on. After receiving, I think, a bit of surprise about the extent of penetration of our computers, we began to make sure that we were very, very much more security conscious.”
In the film, Lord Triesman does not directly hold Russia responsible for the hacker attacks against the English computers. He simply suggests that he knows who did it, but that he cannot go public about his knowledge without revealing his source. And he does not want that.
Lord Triesman's direct opponent in the battle of the spies, the head of the Russian World Cup bid, Alexey Sorokin, was not very talkative either when the two Danish instructors behind 'A World Cup of Spies', Niels Bochert Holm and Jon Adelsten, visited him:
"I never encountered any involvement of intelligence services. That I can assure you. I was never aware of any involvement,” claims the Russian.
It is a fact, however, that Alexey Sorokin's most senior political leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is a former KGB agent. And according to England's former World Cup bid consultant Peter Hargitay, politics played a key role in the process ahead of Russia's win in the World Cup host election in 2010.
"Before the vote in 2010 there was massive political interference in the voting process, not to mention the rambling corruption that goes with huge projects. That is where the human side of things comes in - the greed," says Peter Hargitay in the Danish documentary, in which he also strongly dissociates himself from his former employer's use of spies.
"Well, I would not know the details, would I?".
But, Peter Hargitay, who was fired from England’s World Cup bid after only six months of employment, has a great personal knowledge of the greed he denotes as the human side of the spies' battle for the World Cup.
In the 1980s, he was doing PR for Union Carbide, who had the whole world turn against them after a gas leak incident at the company's chemical plant in Bhopal, India, which cost thousands of lives. Later in the 80s, Peter Hargitay worked for American stockbroker Marc Rich, who was convicted for tax evasion and breach of international trade sanctions against South Africa's then apartheid regime. In the 1990s, Hargitay came under suspicion in a major cocaine case in Jamaica, which cost him a jail sentence before being acquitted in court.
When in 2002, after a random meeting with FIFA’s then president, Sepp Blatter, the pr guy was employed as the football boss’ special advisor, it was thus a man with considerable experience in the dark sides of human greed that entered the world's most popular sport.
But when Hargitay was appointed as consultant for England's World Cup bid in 2008, he faced another version of greed, which he, in the documentary, consistently describes as English arrogance. Or, as he states about the English spies’ attempts to compete with the Russian spies in the battle of the World Cup:
“You underestimate them (the Russians, ed.), that is the biggest mistake you can make. If you try to beat them at their game, namely to undermine them, and you use intelligence against them - it does not work like that. They beat you at it. They have done so for 60 years. Come on, their intelligence is allways better. Allways."
The MI6 agent
If we find Russia's and England's ten-year-old espionage war on the World Cup to be relevant today, it is not only because Russia will host this year’s event.
In January last year, it emerged that one of the English football spies was MI6's former agent in Russia, Christopher Steele. He has since been revealed as the spy who claimed that Russian intelligence service, FSB, allegedly had recorded incriminating sex videos of US President Donald Trump at a Moscow hotel three years before the controversial Republican took over the White House in Washington.
After a long career as an MI6 agent, where his assignments included the investigation of the liquidation of former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London, Christopher Steele was hired by the English FA in 2009. At that time, Steele was a partner in the private intelligence company Orbis.
But according to The Guardian, it was a collaboration between Orbis and the US company Fusion GPS, which made the FBI take Steele’s intelligence about Donald Trump seriously. The former British spy had a great knowledge not only of the FIFA corruption, which the FBI investigated, he also had a large network of sources in Russia from his time as an MI6 agent in Moscow.
A widespread practice
The public's knowledge of Christopher Steele is now making it harder for him to continue his career as a spy. But there are still many details about his secret football work for England and intelligence about Donald Trump, that have not yet seen the light of day.
And if you are to believe Peter Hargitay, England and Russia are not the only nations that have had elected politicians spend tax payer money on the assistance of professional spies in the hopes of securing a World Cup. According to him, football espionage is a widespread political practice:
"I know that Australia, in its bid for the 2022 World Cup, had help from former CIA agents from America. And Germany got help from the German intelligence service to win the bid for the 2006 World Cup," said Peter Hargitay at an event after the documentary screening.
There is a similar statement in the documentary from the Hungarian about former German President Christian Wulff adding pressure on German FIFA member Franz Beckenbauer in order to make him vote for Russia as a World Cup host. This statement, however, the documentary fails to document. After the screening, Hargitay gave the following explanation:
"Not everything is in the film. I am saving some for a book I'm writing about FIFA, which will be published this autumn," said the self-conscious press officer who obviously enjoyed acting the role of the hero both in the new documentary and during his visit to Copenhagen for the film premiere at the expense of Lord David Triesman and the other English football leaders who rejected his services ten years ago when the spies battled for the World Cup.
‘A World Cup of Spies’ is produced by Wingman Media Media in cooperation with Danish daily Ekstra Bladet Story Studio and with the support of Politiken Foundation and others. The film has been sold to a number of television stations abroad and can be seen on ekstrabladet.dk (£) in Denmark.