PtG Comment 28.11.2017

Collusion? – The strange relationship between Qatar and Russia in the field of sports

Qatar and Russia. Corruption and doping. That is what everybody is talking about at Play the Game 2017 in Eindhoven. The latest developments in both doping and corruption investigations link the two countries closer and closer together. Are we seeing the contours of a collusion between Qatar and Russia in sports?

Hassan Al Thawadi, the Secretary General of the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy of the World Cup in Qatar 2022, and the former bid chief of the Qatar 2022, has a tight schedule these days travelling around the world promoting the controversial World Cup in the tiny Gulf State in 2022 and refusing all claims that Qatar bribed itself to be the hosts of the World Cup.

To an attentive audience at Play the Game 2017 here in Eindhoven, he repeated all his well-prepared PR bullet points on the progress Qatar as a nation has made after Qatar in 2010 surprisingly won the right to host the World Cup, and he also repeated his well-rehearsed remarks on what it means for the Middle East to host the World Cup for the first time. Critical questions were either responded with rhetorical questions back or with lengthy answers making people look at their watch. 

Further, Al Thawadi denied, when I asked him, any cooperation between Russia and Qatar in the run up to election of the World Cups of 2018 and 2022, and he also denied any of the accusations coming from the courts of Brooklyn these days, accusations of massive bribes and kickbacks in relation to World Cup bids and media deals. Qatar and Russia are linked together in a bizarre way on these issues.

The Steele dossier and the FIFA trial

In Brooklyn, US, three former South American football officials are standing trial these days. These three guys are South America’s former top football officials, Juan Ángel Napout, the head of the Paraguayan Football Association, José María Marín, the former head of Brazil’s Football Association and Manuel Burga, the former head of Peru’s Football Association.

The first witness in the American FIFA case against the three former football officials, the Argentinian businessman Alejandro Burzaco, claimed in his testimony that all three of them received $1 million bribes in exchange for their votes to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The claim was that it was part of a vote-trading agreement between officials from Spain and Portugal and officials from Qatar. The South American officials voted for Spain and Portugal to host the 2018 World Cup and for Qatar to host the 2022 competition.

The irony in this case is that there would probably never have been a FIFA trial in the US at this moment without the intelligence report provided by the England 2018 bid, with a special focus on Russia. This month Guardian-journalist Luke Harding came out with his book 'Collusion' – a book about the nature of Donald Trump’s decade-long relationship with Russia. The book has a special emphasis on the dossier produced by the former MI6 agent Christopher Steeles on demand from the adversaries (both Republicans and Democrats) of Donald Trump in the US presidential election in 2016 – but also with more details on the dossier Steele made for England World Cup bid 2018.

In Collusion Luke Harding writes on page 25:

“According to Steele, Putin was a reluctant backer of Russia’s World Cup bid and only became engaged from mid-2010, when it appeared Moscow might lose. Putin then summoned a group of oligarchs. He instructed them to do whatever was necessary to achieve to achieve victory, including striking personal deals with FIFA voters……”

“Steele discovered that FIFA corruption was global. It was a stunning conspiracy. He took the unusual step of briefing an American contact in Rome, the head of the FBI’s Eurasia and Serious Crime Division. This led to a probe by US federal prosecutors. And to the arrests in 2015 of seven FIFA officials, allegedly connected to $150 million in kickbacks, paid on TV deals stretching from Latin America to the Caribbean. The United States indicted fourteen individuals.”

Some of this information is described in the book 'The Ugly Game', written by the Sunday Times-reporters Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake and was also described in a hearing on the Steele dossier in the British parliament in November 2014.

Quite new is that Steele’s actions led to the arrests of FIFA officials at the luxury hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich in May 2015 and to the trials we are witnessing in Brooklyn, these days. Further, I think it is a breakthrough in the investigation of the Qatar World Cup that somebody under oath in an American court room names names and gives numbers connecting FIFA officials to direct payments from Qatar in a vote-buying scheme.

Focus on Qatar has overshadowed concerns over Russian bid

Earlier this year, Jan Jensen in the Danish Daily Ekstra Bladet and me ran a series of articles explaining how Russia managed to get the World Cup. We used the information from the Steele dossier, but we also had other sources giving us information on how Russia and Qatar were also vote-trading in the lead up to the controversial decision in Zurich in 2010. Suspicious oil-agreements between the two states and secret visits to Moscow by Qataris and central members of FIFA Executive Committee were all part of the deal.

Focus on Qatar has over-shadowed the Russian questions concerning the World Cup bid. Much more focus has been on the situation of migrant workers in Qatar and the Human Rights situation in the Gulf state, in addition to all the claims of corruption, than on how Russia got the World Cup, and on the political involvement of Russian officials in the run up to the decision on where to hold the World Cup in 2018.

On the other hand, Russia has been in the middle of the storm concerning grave doping allegations, especially around the Sochi Olympics in 2014, a crisis that spills right into the World Cup in Russia next year, primarily because the Russian anti-doping agency RUSADA is still declared non-compliant by WADA and because the Russian national football team are under investigation for being part of a state-sponsored doping programme, like most other sports in Russia.

It’s admirable that Hassan Al Thawadi shows up at Play the Game 2017 in Eindhoven to defend the decision to give the World Cup to Qatar. He has a tough task to convince over 400 critical delegates at the conference. The new Russian sports minister, Pavel Kolobkov, did not dare to show up to defend itself against all the evidence and critics against Russia in the field of doping.

Maybe Hassan Al Thawadi and the Russian minister should start a closer cooperation as part of their crisis management?

Andreas Selliaas is following Play the Game 2017 and in a series of posts, he shares his thoughts about what takes place during the conference.

In more than 40 sessions, over 200 speakers will present their thoughts and opinions on a wide range of the most topical questions in world sport during the tenth Play the Game conference, taking place in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, 26-30 November 2017.Read more about Play the Game 2017