'The Ugly Game' Details FIFA's Culture Of Corruption

Download Audio
Sepp Blatter (left) with Mohamed bin Hammam (right) (Mark Baker/AP)
Sepp Blatter (left) with Mohamed bin Hammam (right) (Mark Baker/AP)

Charges of corruption, bribery, money laundering and influence peddling have recently made FIFA the object of criticism and the subject of investigations.

Reporters Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert, authors of "The Ugly Game: The Corruption of FIFA and the Qatari Plot To Buy the World Cup,” joined Bill Littlefield.

Highlights from Bill's Conversation With Jonathan Calvert And Heidi Blake

UglyGame.coverimageBL: Jonathan, the story of how Qatar won the opportunity to host the 2022 World Cup began with the desire of the country’s ruler to acquire that spectacle. But the point man for the effort was Mohamed bin Hammam. Tell us a little bit about him.

JC: Well, Mohamed bin Hammam was Qatar’s top football official. He was a big football fan who rose up the ranks and became one of the FIFA Executive Committee members. While he was there, he became quite instrumental in helping the FIFA President Sepp Blatter gain power. He had presidential ambitions himself. He was an extraordinarily wealthy man, and the reason that Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup was all because of Mohamed bin Hammam.

BL: There were so many reasons why that country shouldn’t have won that right: temperatures during that time of the year when the World Cup has traditionally been played, the lack of soccer tradition, the lack of facilities in which to play soccer, FIFA’s own report singling out the country as having the highest risk of "operational failure." Why did that bid go forward at all?

HB: Well, that’s the big burning question, and I think that this was a decision which just on the face of it was totally inexplicable. And I think that when FIFA took the decision to name Qatar as the host of the 2022 tournament, the whole world kind of looked on in total disbelief. And it was apparent that there was no way that decision could have been taken for good reasons. It was clear that the process had been corrupted in some way. And what we saw in our documents was this campaign by Mohamed bin Hammam to buy up a worldwide groundswell of support for the Qatar World Cup bid.

JC: There’s lots of evidence that Qatar won that bid unfairly. It wasn’t just the bribes, it was some of the deals that were made. And one of the deals that we write about is how there was a vote-swap deal between countries — and Qatar, Thailand, Egypt, and they swapped votes with Spain and the three South American countries. And this was completely against the rules, and it was investigated summarily by FIFA before the competition.

HB: There is an overwhelming avalanche of incontrovertible evidence that the process was corrupted, that Qatar should not have won the rights to host the World Cup, and FIFA has just decided to staunchly ignore it. It has been that terrible, terrible decision that has brought about the crumbling of the edifice around Sepp Blatter and led up to this investigation by the FBI and the Swiss authorities.

There is an overwhelming avalanche of incontrovertible evidence that the process was corrupted...and FIFA has just decided to staunchly ignore it.

Heidi Blake, co-author of the 'The Ugly Game'

BL: One of the stories of the distribution of forbidden gifts involves wrist watches valued at $25,000 each. Jonathan, tell us about that episode in the on-going drama because I think it reveals something about how the culture of FIFA works as well as something about how it sometimes doesn’t work.

JC: Yeah, well FIFA is an organization that’s continuously telling us that it’s reformed and it’s reforming. And one of its reforms was to say its officials should not accept gifts over $250.

This was voted in by the FIFA Executive Committee. And when the FIFA Executive Committee attended the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, there in the hotel in their goody-bag were watches each costing $25,000. Now, by their own rules, that was way, way over the value of gifts that they should have accepted, but what do they do? Almost all of them pocketed them and took them home.

BL: Except the plot broke down because there were a few apparently honest members.

Blake and Calvert don't think Blatter's successor could reform FIFA. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images) Blake and Calvert don't think Blatter's successor could reform FIFA. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)
Who will FIFA elect to succeed Sepp Blatter? According to Blake and Calvert, it likely won't be a reformist. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

HB: Yeah, that’s right, and they took it to Michael Garcia — he was then FIFA's ill-fated investigator — and complained about it. And he did precisely nothing until we found out that these watches had been given out and reported it in the Sunday Times, whereupon he rushed out a statement saying that all the watches had to be returned immediately. But of course, nobody was going to be punished.

BL: So a lot of FIFA, by my count, something like 22 FIFA lords were really angry at you because they had to give up a really nice watch.

JC: Yeah, they hated it. You’re absolutely right.

HB: Well, some of them had given them away to members of their family. I rather suspect some of them had sold the watches. Michel D'Hooghe, who was the member for Belgium, said it didn’t matter to him anyways because he’d been on FIFA so long he didn’t have any more room on his arm for watches.

JC: One of them swore blind that he hadn’t actually accepted the watch and then phoned us up the next day and said, "Oh, I found it in my garage."

BL: Back in May, several FIFA officials were arrested in Switzerland on corruption charges. Prominent officials — Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer — have been kicked out of the organization. Will FIFA change? Can FIFA change the way it does business?

JC: Well, I think it’s probably going to be very difficult for it to change...because I think it's a completely split organization. It’s like the United Nations without its security council. So therefore there are 200 nations that make the decisions. What matters to them most is that FIFA distributes all its wealth to them, and they don’t want to see reforms and they’re quite happy with the way Sepp Blatter has been running the organization so far. So with the presidential elections, which are coming up next February, I think it’s going to be very, very difficult, because I think a truly reformist candidate probably won't get elected in.

Bill's Thoughts On 'The Ugly Game'

Some of "The Ugly Game" is pretty funny, especially when the authors write about themselves in the third person, as in: “two figures sat hunched forward in the wan glow of their computer screens…”

The center of "The Ugly Game" is the story of how the 2022 World Cup got assigned to Qatar, one of the most inhospitable sites imaginable for the spectacle. Money changed hands; promises were made, broken, and glued back together; if no legs were broken, arms were certainly bent.

Blake and Calvert are legitimately proud of the exceptional investigations they’ve conducted, and some of the men they’ve identified as fixers and crooks have been cast out of FIFA. At least a few of them may end up in jail. It only remains to be seen whether the retirement of President Sepp Blatter, whenever it occurs, will encourage in those who remain in power or ascend to FIFA’s heights the impulse to reform the operation exposed in "The Ugly Game."

This segment aired on September 5, 2015.


Headshot of Bill Littlefield

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



More from Only A Game

Listen Live