Is Qatar The Target Of A Dirty Tricks Campaign To Strip It Of The World Cup?

07/18/2017 09:49 am ET Updated Jul 18, 2017
Ibrahem Alomari / Reuters

As a piece of fake news it was so convincing that even Reuters, the respected international news agency, fell for it.

A little known Swiss website had published a report that FIFA president Gianni Infantino had received a letter from six Arab countries demanding that Qatar be stripped of the 2022 World Cup.

It didn’t take long for other media outlets to pile on because, well, if Reuters was running the story then it must be true...

Latest indications are that the report originated on websites in the Middle East.

For several hours on Sunday the story was spreading on the internet but never actually made into print.

That’s because it wasn’t true. FIFA denied ever having received such a letter, the Swiss website took its story down and Reuters withdrew its own version.

But the damage was done. If you want to look for story now, it’s there to be found and disseminated as people with their own agendas no doubt will.

This is the era of fake news, as Donald Trump would have us believe. But the story of the FIFA letter is only the latest in a series of events that point to the hosts of the 2022 World Cup becoming the target of an apparent dirty tricks campaign.

If the Washington Post is to be believed, the current crisis in the Middle East was orchestrated by the United Arab Emirates which hacked Qatar’s news website and attributed incendiary quotes to its Emir, causing the row.

The hackings have served to put pressure on a tiny state that is locked in a simmering dispute with an alliance of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.

The hackings at the weekend were not the first time sport has been used as a political football.

Adolf Hitler used the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin to show off Germany’s might.

In 1980 America boycotted the Games in Moscow in protest at the Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan and four years later the Russians hit back, staying away from Los Angeles over ‘security concerns’.

Such is its huge worldwide appeal, it seems it’s now soccer’s turn to become a geopolitical pawn, with FIFA recently caught up in both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The question of whether the ‘beautiful game’ was being exploited once again emerged last month with the leak of a long awaited FIFA report into alleged corruption surrounding the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids.

It’s true there was a bit of a whiff about how the story broke.

The Garcia Report was leaked to German newspaper, Bild, which said it would be releasing it in ‘stages.’ And Stage One was: Qatar.

Bild didn’t get to release more anti-Qatar leaks in Stage Two because FIFA spiked its guns by releasing the entire 430-page document on its website.

The conclusion of the Garcia Report, named after FIFA investigator Michael Garcia, was that there was no ‘smoking gun’ showing that either Qatar, or Russia, which won the bids, bribed FIFA officials to get their votes.

This was not what many had claimed, including whistleblower Phaedra Almajid.

The former press officer for Qatar’s bid claimed the weight of evidence against Doha would see it stripped of the tournament to ‘save Sepp Blatter’s skin.’

But FIFA later questioned her testimony saying there were ‘serious concerns’ about her evidence to Mr Garcia.

What the Garcia Report does show, however, is that they were all ‘at it.’ And by ‘at it,’ I mean they were all mired in dodgy backroom deals.

Even the British Royal Family was dragged into the murky world of FIFA World Cup bids.

Imagine officials sitting around discussing whether they could get away with an honorary knighthood from The Queen for a South American FIFA voter.

Or Prince William sitting in a meeting with then Prime Minister David Cameron discussing shady vote-swapping deals with South Korea.

Well, that’s what happened.

Sport is big business and you bring your biggest guns to the table to wield what influence they have.

So, much is made of President Putin meeting six of 22 FIFA reps before the vote in December 2010.

Was that really any different to President Obama entertaining three FIFA voters at the White House or former President Clinton pressing the flesh in Zurich in the hours before the vote.

America’s huge financial muscle is reflected in the fact that North American broadcasters will pay FIFA £230m extra if it picks the region to host the 2026 World Cup.

Fox and co have already been handed the TV rights to 2026 as compensation for Qatar hosting the event in winter 2022 to avoid the searing summer heat. But to have them in the US would just be the icing on the cake.

What was strange about the Bild story was that a report which had been collecting dust for three years should suddenly be leaked on the very day that Qatar’s foreign minister was meeting the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington.

Bild singled out the Qatari sports facility, Aspire Academy, for manipulating FIFA members.

The Garcia report says Aspire helped train young players from Qatar and across Africa and Asia to ‘curry favour with executive committee members’.

But is this any different to, say, England’s agreement to play an international friendly with Thailand to get that particular country’s support - something the ex-FA boss Geoff Thompson later admitted he was thought was inappropriate because ‘I think it’s a form of bribery’.

Even those with no understanding of the offside rule might see that it is that it is not the corrupting influence of one state that’s revealed by the Garcia Report, but rather the ‘culture of entitlement’ that FIFA has presided over for too long where its voters are constantly on the make.

However, more is at stake. Both Bild’s report and the fake FIFA letter stories specifically targeted Qatar at a time when the Gulf state was at its most isolated and vulnerable in the region.

The first came as the U.S. and Qatar were holding crisis talks to resolve a Saudi-led effort to blockade the Gulf state, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism and cosying up to Iran.

The second came after Mr Tillerson returned home to Washington empty-handed from a week’s shuttle diplomacy in the Gulf when he failed to break the impasse over the blockade.

It’s not hard to work out who has most to benefit from the pressure being piled on Qatar.

CONVERSATIONS