David Remnick: No, I'm not a particularly knowledgeable fan of the beautiful game. The NBA is more my thing, but every four years I get deep into the World Cup, a global phenomenon that this year will be played out in the tiny Middle Eastern nation of Qatar. In my city, New York, anticipation is running high.
Speaker 1: Who are you rooting for?
Speaker 2: Ecuador of course, we're the ones that play first.
Speaker 3: I think it's a Senegal.
Speaker 4: Argentina, Brazil.
Speaker 5: Either Iran or England, Wales in the World Cup.
Speaker 6: USA baby. [laughs]
Speaker 7: The best team win the World Cup.
Speaker 8: I like football because the energy.
Speaker 9: Who was born on soccer. You need a piece of land a ball, and that's a bunch of guys. That's all you need.
Speaker 10: Been waiting my whole life for us to get there. It hasn't happened since 1958, so it's been 64 years.
Speaker 11: Even if I'm in school, I'm going to watch the game.
Speaker 12: How you going to do that?
Speaker 11: I got something on the app. I can watch the game online.
Speaker 13: We actually have the big screen ready. I already bet Senegal to reach at least the quarterfinals.
Speaker 14: It's amazing. It's fabulous. I'm very proud. Big clubs from New York definitely.
Speaker 15: Eron.
Speaker 16: [foreign language]
Speaker 17: Viva Senegal.
Speaker 18: The best team in Africa.
Speaker 19: Come on [unintelligible 00:01:21].
Speaker 20: Which means that yes, we can.
Speaker 13: A bet Senegal is going to win the World Cup. I'm positive, I dream last night.
Speaker 1: Some people say it's a beautiful game. Do you know why they say that?
Speaker 2: Because it is.
David Remnick: Soccer fans from around the world interviewed in New York. For all the anticipation, this year's World Cup is taking place under an immense cloud of scandal. We've seen headlines about the death of migrant workers who built the facilities, charges of wire fraud, racketeering and money laundering have led to arrests and indictments around the world. Even Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA and a very dicey figure in the drama, even he said that Qatar hosting the World Cup was a mistake. That's a quote. "The choice was bad," he said. No kidding. Blatter was banned from the game after an ethics probe, though he continues to deny any wrongdoing.
Heidi Blake, who recently joined The New Yorker, is an investigative journalist who dug into what happened at FIFA along with a colleague, Jonathan Calvert, when they were both reporting for a British newspaper. They ultimately collaborated on a book about how Qatar was awarded the World Cup, and it's called The Ugly Game. Here's Heidi Blake.
Heidi Blake: I have to confess that I am not a football fan. I don't follow the sport. I couldn't explain the offside rule to you if I tried, which is deeply embarrassing but did mean that I came to this kind of as a bit of an innocent.
David Remnick: Let's start with this. Why is it important to any country to get the World Cup? What does it mean for a country?
Heidi Blake: What became clear to me as I went about the reporting was just how deeply enmeshed world football and global sports more broadly, but I think particularly football, have become with geopolitics. It's hard to overstate how glitzy a prize it is for any individual bidding country to win the rights to host the World Cup.
Speaker 21: The Emir of Qatar has led his country from a small pearling industry to one of the richest in the world with oil and gas. It had been his idea to bid for the World Cup, and they carried him aloft as they took to their cars.
Heidi Blake: The Qatar World Cup is expected to be watched by 5 billion people. There's literally no other event which would attract the world's gaze to your country to that extent, particularly for countries that are trying to position themselves in the world as major global players. As up-and-coming forces in the modern world like Qatar, this is a huge prize.
David Remnick: Qatar wants to do what? What does it hope to achieve specifically to Qatar by having the World Cup. They'd spent a hell of a lot of resources and effort to get it.
Heidi Blake: They sure have, $300 billion on infrastructure alone to pull this thing off. It's eye watering. Too Qatar the bid to host the World Cup was part of their Amir's plan to diversify the Qatari economy and Qatar's position in the world for the future when their oil and gas reserves begin to dwindle. This is a hugely key part of that plan.
David Remnick: Let's go back to 2014. I think that's where we're positioning this. Can you recall what happened when you learned, and you were a journalist at The Sunday Times at the time, when you learned that a whistleblower from inside FIFA, the most powerful international soccer organization, had come forward with evidence of corruption within FIFA as it pertained to the bidding for the 2022 World Cup? What was going on?
Heidi Blake: I worked for The Sunday Times insight team, an investigations team embedded at the heart the newspaper. The insight team had a bit of a history of reporting on corruption within FIFA, and in particular in the World Cup bidding process. My then colleague, Jonathan Calvert, in 2010 while the World Cup bid was going on, had learned of allegations of corruption and had actually gone undercover and approached FIFA voters asking them what would it take to win their support for the World Cup.
David Remnick: They put a price tag on it, a specific price tag?
Heidi Blake: A specific price tag. It was very clear, the exact sums these people were looking for. We were then approached years later by this source, who came forward from Inside World Football and said to us that they had obtained an enormous cache of documents. There were literally hundreds of millions of emails and bank transfer slips and chat logs and phone records. It's was an absolute treasure trove, which showed in really eye-popping detail the way that Qatar had gone about paying bribes on an industrial scale across the world football community to buy up support for the tournament.
Speaker 22: FIFA Sepp Blatter is in Zimbabwe and has promised to crack down on Match fixing and football during his two-day visit, he appeared to take a tough stance against anyone found guilty of corruption.
David Remnick: You sequestered yourself, as I understand it, for about three months in a kind of bunker-style setting. Can you describe that and what it was like to work that consertively and hat secretively for three months?
Heidi Blake: It was really wild. The source was understandably very, very nervous about their safety and the ramifications for them of having blown the whistle on this kind of a scale. This was one of the very, very first huge data leaks, actually back in 2014. They were very concerned. The terms on which they were prepared to allow us to look at the documents was that we had to relocate to what we came to affectionately called the bunker, this dingy office space in a remote outpost of the UK, where we were not to be in regular contact with colleagues or friends or family.
We were monitored by CCTV, our keystrokes on our computers were monitored, all to make sure we didn't try to remove any of the documents we were viewing. It was a bit of a pressure cooker environment being in there, and we had three months before the World Cup kicked off in Brazil. We knew that we wanted to drop the story ahead of the tournament because that was going to be when there was just maximum attention, the whole world would be watching FIFA at that point. The clock was ticking and we worked crazy hours and just made our eyeballs bleed reading these documents at three in the morning.
David Remnick: I'm interested first in FIFA itself, which operates a billion dollar nonprofit. How it went from being almost like a gentlemen's club founded in 1904 with less than, I think, a dozen employees to what you call a global powerhouse with billions of dollars in revenue and hundreds of staff members just give us a brief history lesson on FIFA.
Heidi Blake: It's an extraordinary story, and it's really a quirk of Swiss Association law that allows FIFA, an organization which commands revenues of billions of dollars each World Cup cycle in TV rights and sponsorship deals, to call itself a nonprofit organization. FIFA it really wasn't professionalized until the '80s and '90s under Sepp Blatter's predecessor, the former FIFA president João Havelange, who began to see the potential to exploit the rights to show the World Cup on TV, sponsorship deals. It was actually Blatter who came in as Havelange's protege in 1998, and really professionalized FIFA. Really saw the opportunity to start selling those deals and took what was a fairly small entity to these global heights, where now FIFA executives are greeted around the world like heads of state.
Sepp Blatter would travel the world and be welcomed by prime ministers and presidents, kings and queens. I think that's because of the political significance that the rights to host the World Cup have come to accrue.
David Remnick: Much of your book, The Ugly Game focuses on someone named Mohammed Bin Hammam. Who is he?
Heidi Blake: Mohammed Bin Hammam was until 2011 the most senior football official in Qatar. He was a member of FIFA's executive Committee which was then 24 person committee who have the ability to select the next host of the World Cup. The World Cup is really the jewel in the crown for FIFA. A place on that committee is the most coveted position in world football.
Speaker 23: 24 executive committee members are appointed by worldwide football confederations and associations and they in turn elect a president. Collectively they determine the movement of billions of dollars coming in from TV and sponsorship deals and the awarding of World Cups is determined by them. Until a few years ago appointments-
Heidi Blake: Bin Herman had ascended through the ranks of Qatari society. He is a construction magnet in Qatar. He made his billions in the construction boom after Qatar's discovery of oil and natural gas. He was a football fan and managed to get himself by hook or by crook onto the FIFA for Executive Committee and then found himself in this extraordinary position of being tasked by the Amir of Qatar with bringing the rights to host the World Cup to Doha. Bin Hammam man was the first to say, "This is impossible. This can never be achieved," for all kinds of reasons. He was a loyal patriot and he said about trying to do it.
David Remnick: What was the task in front of him? What were the obstacles for Quatar to get the World Cup as opposed to any other country?
Heidi Blake: Qatar is almost uniquely badly positioned to host the World Cup. That's why the dam broke at that point on FIFA corruption, because people looked at this and thought, "There is no logical explanation for that decision. This process must have been corrupted." That's because Qatar is a tiny country. The Qatari citizenry amount to about 300,000 people. Everybody else in Qatar is a migrant worker or a foreigner who's moved there, doesn't have citizenship. The total population is about 2.9 million at the moment. There are 1.5 million football fans who descend on a country hosting the World Cup. If you imagine trying to cram another 1.5 million people into a country of 2.9 million,, it just doesn't make sense. Qatar had no existing infrastructure in place for a tournament on this scale.
The city in which the World Cup was scheduled to be hosted, Lusail, did not exist at the point of which Qatar was awarded the rights. They had to build a city north of Doha. They had to build seven air conditioned stadiums in the desert. They've spent 300 billion.
David Remnick: We need to dwell on that, seven air conditioned stadiums?
Heidi Blake: Yes. In the desert. They had to move the tournament to winter because the temperatures in Qatar are so punishing in the summer when the tournament is normally played. The only way that this would work was to air condition the stadiums in the desert heat.
David Remnick: When they win, people have to say there's no way that palms weren't greased on a global scale?
Heidi Blake: That's right. There were just countless reasons why this obviously was a terrible idea. At the point at which it was announced, I think that was a bridge too far.
David Remnick: Then what did the documents tell you? Whose palms were being greased? On what scale? Who was guilty of what?
Heidi Blake: What was interesting about the documents was that we knew that Mohammad bin Hammam was the most senior figure in Qatari football. He was widely believed to be the mastermind of the campaign to host the World Cup. Qatar's official bid committee had always sought to distance themselves from him. What we could see in the documents was that they had been using him as a cutout. While they themselves ran a fairly straightforward bid that did tow the line of the FIFA rules, Mohammad bin Hammam was flying around the world hosting football officials on junkets where he handed out words of cash and held private meetings with football officials where he would say to them, "I'd like you to support the World Cup," and then would bung them a huge amount of cash.
What was extraordinary about this for us as journalists investigating this kind of thing is people are normally careful enough not to leave a paper trail. In this case, Mohammad bin Hammam had a very punctilious assistant who kept meticulous records. Every time Mohammad bin Hammam n paid one of these bribes Najeeb would email a copy of the bank transfer slip to the official concerned saying, "Please find attach for records. Mohammad bin Hammmmam thanks you for your support for the Qatar 2022 World Cup." I've never seen graft and corruption documented in this detail ever before.
David Remnick: From a reportorial point of view, this giant cache of positive evidence, not for want of trying I'm sure, but fell into your laps. What it took most of all was the patience to sift through it.
Heidi Blake: That's right. It really was three months of sitting and trawling through the documents. We used forensic search software that's often used by law enforcement in cases like these of piece together the evidence. We were triangulating documents. We had internal messenger logs from the organizations we were looking at. We could see members of staff gossiping about things. We could see emails, we could see flight manifests, we could see accounts documents, we could see bank transfers. We spent three months building an enormous timeline of all of the documents We could see.
We mapped out a network of slush funds that Mohammad bin Hammam was using, including his daughter's bank account and then the accounts of the Asian football confederation that he controlled to route these payments to football officials. Just to find that long trail of documented bribes was one of the more thrilling moments for me as a journalist because it's so rare to see bribery and corruption documented like that. It just doesn't happen.
David Remnick: Unbelievable. The first matches of the World Cup are about to begin in Quatar very, very soon. After what you uncovered, how is it possible that they held onto the World Cup?
Heidi Blake: That is the $6.5 billion question I think, that is being the projected revenues for this World Cup. It's extraordinary and it's very depressing actually. The way that FIFA responded when we published our evidence was to deny that there was any evidence. Actually at the time I remember being very shocked by the cognitive dissonance of dealing with an organization where we had published all this evidence and they were saying, "The evidence doesn't exist. There is no evidence." Now I think in 2022 we're a little more used to dealing with powerful organizations and individuals who just deny the truth and muddy the waters in that way. It was unusual.
Even now that 17 of the 22 FIFA executive committee members who were in place at the time Qatar was awarded the cup have now been arrested or indicted or charged or accused of corruption and bribery. This is not just a journalistic inquiry. This is established fact.
David Remnick: What became of Mohammad bin Hammam?
Heidi Blake: That is extraordinary coder to this whole story. He did this for his country and he's now been cast out of the royal circle. The Qatari Royal family and Sepp Blatter did a deal whereby it was agreed that he would go quietly, take the rap and never appear again in relation to football or to the World Cup. He now lives in Doha but he doesn't appear publicly. Meanwhile, the Qatari Royals and the supreme committee who are organizing the World Cup are reaping those rewards and having their huge victory lap. Bin Hammam has been totally cast aside.
David Remnick: Now these matches are going to begin. Who cares? In other words,, do the fans show any disaffection, disappointment, skepticism in the aftermath of your pieces and in the book?
Heidi Blake: I think that what people actually care about now is not so much the bribes and the corruption but is the human cost of that corrupt decision. For me this is an object lesson in why corruption matters, because it results in terrible decisions that have real impact on the lives of people. It's not just about cash and brown envelopes, it's about migrant workers who've died building stadiums in the desert. It's about LGBTQ fans who are going to go to the World Cup and feel unsafe because they've been told not to make public displays of affection because homosexuality is a crime in Quatar.
It's a place where journalists have been detained for trying to report on the abuse of migrant workers and on World Cup corruption. Fans are showing showing outrage at that. Nonetheless, the tournament is happening and Qatar got its way and it's a real shame that such a blatantly corrupted decision was not reversed.
David Remnick: Heidi, thank you so much.
Heidi Blake: Thanks for having me.
David Remnick: Heidi Blake is a contributing writer at The New Yorker and she wrote and published The Ugly Game along with Jonathan Calvert. Now a couple of things we need to note here. FIFA later denied that there was any deal between and among bin Hammmam, Sepp Blatter and Quatar's royal family. Qatar has denied that bin Hammam was tasked with promoting the Nation's bid in an official or unofficial capacity.
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