It is unusual to find the word “I” in the first sentence of a column of this type. It is there, however, and it will reappear several times in the following lines.
What follows can only be written in the first person. For twelve years, somewhat by chance, at least at the beginning, my life, and not just my professional life, has been linked to Qatar 2022.
I had only begun to take a more pronounced interest in the process of awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups a few months before the decision of December 2, 2010. I had read correctly Red card ! The disturbing underside of FIFA, the book in which the great Scottish investigative journalist Andrew Jennings laid bare the corrupting workings of football’s governing body.
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Sepp Blatter on December 2, 2010
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I also had very few illusions about the probity of the twenty-four members of the FIFA Executive Committee, two of whom – the Nigerian Amos Adamu and the Tahitian Reynald Temarii – would moreover be banned by their own authority a few weeks before the vote, having found a way to be filmed offering to sell their votes to British journalists posing as canvassers from candidate countries.
In this I differed little from most fans, for whom it was a given that Sepp Blatter and his cohort of middle-aged gentlemen were a collection of mobsters, gangsters and crooks to be with. well obliged to compose, since one could not do otherwise, and that it would always be thus… this speech, everyone knows it.
As the months passed, however, it became impossible to ignore that something quite unusual was happening. We were no longer talking about kraft paper envelopes stuffed with dollars. We were talking about governments using their intelligence and counter-intelligence services to try to find out what game their rivals were playing. At least one of the candidate nations – Australia, why not name it? – also appealed to more dubious pharmacies to gather information on the actions of each other.
With FIFA having made the choice – which Blatter opposed – to decide the hosts of two Worlds on the same day, it was inevitable that alliances would be forged between candidates for 2018 – England, Russia and the Belgium-Netherlands duos and Spain-Portugal – and for 2022 – the USA, big favorites, Japan, Korea, Australia and, incredibly, Qatar. The collusion between the Qataris and the Spaniards (Portugal only going along with their more powerful neighbour) was an open secret that even FIFA could not ignore – but ultimately ignored anyway.
As far as I am concerned, everything changed one morning at the end of November, a week before the famous vote. I got a call suggesting I meet a certain person at a certain time in a certain area of London. “You will not regret it”, I am told. My interlocutor was right. This meeting would change my life.
This certain person opened the conversation with this sentence: “I would like to tell you an Arabic tale”. A silence. “Once upon a time there was an emir who wanted a World Cup…”
Followed the story, embellished with many details, of a lunch to which Nicolas Sarkozy, President of the French Republic, had invited Michel Platini, President of UEFA and Vice-President of FIFA, a few days earlier. According to this certain person, were also present at the Elysée the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Cheikh Hamad Ben Jassim (“HBJ”, pronounced in English) and the Crown Prince Cheikh Tamim, who would succeed his father Cheikh Hamad in 2013. Platini, who had been heard making fun of the Qatari candidacy a few months earlier, and had told the president of the American federation Sunil Gulati that he would support the USA, had changed his shirt at half-time whistled at the palace presidential.
2011 UEFA SOCCER – Platini
The same person then recited to me the list of the twenty-two members of the FIFA Executive Committee, adding after each name the countries for which he would vote. The South Americans and Europeans had chosen Qatar. The games were done. For 2018, Russia had the World Cup in their pocket.
My head would spin when I found myself on the street. What to do with this information? With only one source, it was impossible for me to publish anything. And where, by the way? Who would want such a tall tale?
A few hours later, I called a friend from England 2018 and explained to him that I had to see him urgently. The next day, I went to the office of the English bid committee and tried as best I could to convince my interlocutors that what I had been told – and I could not say who that “we” was, of course – was not not a fabrication. I also had my reasons to believe what “we” were saying. But these reasons, I couldn’t and still can’t give them.
The duty to know
Also, unlike those who had raised their eyebrows while listening to me, I was not too surprised when, on December 2, it was the name of Qatar that came out of the envelope. That’s when my life turned upside down. It was then that I realized that I wanted to know what had happened. Not “wanted”, “had to”.
Two years passed before I could get down to it for good, two years devoted to building the beginnings of a network, to listening, to “scratching”, to exchanging with English colleagues who, scalded by the humiliation of England 2018 (who received only two of the twenty-two votes in the first ballot), had been commissioned by their superiors to provide proof that these World Cups had been bought.
I first wrote in the British magazine The Blizzard a long article on Michel Platini’s role in the affair, mentioning the Elysée luncheon in a paragraph that did not escape Gérard Ejnès, then editor-in-chief of France Soccer. “Philip”he told me, “Such a story must be published by us, and at home”.
And it was. Gérard teamed me up with a specialist in this world of instances whom I still didn’t know very well, Eric Champel, with whom I immediately fell in love, although many of our colleagues had difficulty understanding how we could work together, when the answer was in front of them: it was because we were so different that we complemented each other.
In 2010, the 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar.
Credit: Getty Images
It took us six months, I believe, to prepare our file Qatargate, which was released on Tuesday, January 29, 2013. This work had cost me so much, physically and, above all, mentally, that I broke down. The faculty prescribed me two weeks of absolute rest. We hadn’t unpinned a grenade, we had dropped a bomb. I learned later that some of the personalities and organizations that we implicated had immediately brought in their lawyers. Neither Eric Champel nor I ever knew anything about it; and no one ever took us to court.
It’s that we weren’t there to do qatar bashing. I have always made sure to stay in contact with a few people in the Supreme Committee. They will read this column, I know it, and I hope they will remember that, never, I and we have never yielded to the facility of gratuitous accusations.
We didn’t need it. The facts spoke for themselves. A Greek friend alerted me to the sale in Qatar of a plot of land belonging to the family of Cypriot Marios Lefkaritis, a member of FIFA’s ExCom, at a price unrelated to the real value of this plot. Scoop. Eric learned that the Emir of Qatar had secretly met in Rio with the three “godfathers” of South American football, the Argentinian Julio Grondona, the Paraguayan Nicolas Leoz and the Brazilian Ricardo Teixeira at the beginning of 2010; the three, not by the way, who are mentioned in the indictment drawn up by the FBI in the Fifagate trial, and who are said, literally, to sell their votes to the Qataris. Scoop.
Michael Garcia, FIFA’s new supercop, whom I still believe was chosen by Sepp Blatter to withdraw the organization of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the former attorney for the Southern District of New York State, we gave his first – and last – big interview. Scoop. After months of discussion, Phaedra Almajid, a former employee of the Qatari Supreme Committee, agreed to tell me how, during a congress of the Confederation of African Football financed from A to Z by the Qataris, she had seen three dignitaries of African football to offer 1.5 million dollars “for their federation” in exchange for their vote in a hotel room in Luanda. Scoop, which won “Editorial Hit of the Year” in 2014. “You don’t realize it, Philippe”Gérard Ejnès told me one day. “Stories like this are once in your life”. Yes, this job is a drug.
By recalling this, I do not intend to bring out and polish the medals of a forgotten conflict. I intend to highlight how much it costs me, and Eric as well, I imagine, to see that what we had written, and which had been almost ignored then, are presented today as sensational revelations.
I lost count of the number of media from all countries who asked me to intervene in the “Special Qatar” they concocted for broadcast in the run-up to the World Cup. A little late, friends.
The fate of migrant workers in the emirate, we were talking about it in 2013. We were talking about stadiums populated by ghosts. We had tried to relay the message of human rights NGOs, which had never deviated an inch. We had received only indifference and silence in response. We weren’t wrong though. Alas.
The impossibility of playing the tournament in the summer, and its catastrophic impact on the football calendar and the physical integrity of the players if it were played in autumn and winter, we talked about it as early as 2014. All this, we rediscover today.
The resentment that I can feel is not personal. I do not claim a due. I don’t demand an apology. I see this tournament approaching, just as aberrant and absurd in 2022 as it was in 2010, and I still wonder how we could have come to this. I think of all the missed appointments. I am thinking of this indignation that we manifest and exploit now that it is too late to change anything, these calls for a boycott which would have made sense five years ago, but are devoid of it now. I think of this FIFA that its leaders say has changed, but I remember one thing: Sepp Blatter, at least for a time, tried to rectify the error; Infantino chose to come and live in Doha.
Will I watch this World Cup, will I talk about it? Absolutely. To turn your back on it today would be to consummate the triumph of those against whom it is said to be fighting, to abandon football to them. No way. But I will look at it with open eyes, without being fooled, and will try to do what I can so that others are not fooled either. We have the victories we can.
And, as far as I’m concerned, no regrets.
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