Back in late 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had Qatari crown prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani 'round to the Elysee Palace for dinner and a chat. And as luck would have it - or possibly because he loves the palace chef's blanquette de veau - Nicky invited UEFA President and former Nancy boy Michel Platini to drop by as well. By that time, everybody knew that Platini had long since pledged his vote in the 2022 FIFA World Cup balloting - scheduled for a mere nine days later - to the US. In the bag. Done deal.
Thus it was that, after polishing off the last of the profiteroles, Platini found himself listening quietly as Sarkozy begged the Prince to redeem the sad state of French football with a huge infusion of Qatari cash and help shore up the French economy by signing a bunch of commercial contracts.
The Qatari royal promised to give it some serious thought. A day or two later Platini decided that, come to think of it, holding a World Cup in the desert in summertime was a swell notion and he was behind it 100%.
It's worth noting that since that gala evening - and Platini's vote - Qatar has purchased Paris St-Germain and is spending money on them like a merchant seaman on shore leave (see: Beckham, David) and launched beIN Sport in France, going from not existing at all in mid-2011 to now owning the broadcast rights to Ligue 1 and - quelle suprise! - Platini's own UEFA Champions Cup and Europa Cup matches.
Fast forward to this week when the magazine France Football published a fifteen page expose accusing Qatar of blatantly buying the World Cup by, among other things, using their money to strongarm Platini into voting their way. Platini was outraged:
"To believe that my choice to vote for Qatar 2022 was in exchange for agreements between the French state and Qatar is pure speculation and are only the views of those who write these lies" he proclaimed, in a non-denial for the ages.
Swearing that Sarkozy "would never have allowed himself to ask me to vote for Qatar 2022 because he knows that I am my own man" he ended by, as they all do these days - threatening to sue anyone who claimed otherwise.
Now in fact one tends to doubt that Sarkozy explicitly asked Platini to change his vote. On the other hand, Platini cannot possibly pretend that the whole point of inviting him to dinner that night was not so he could hear how badly France needed Qatar's financial help. Otherwise, Sarkozy would have invited a hot French actress like Laetitia Casta or Marion Cotillard, who are probably much better conversationalists than the dour, rumpled and boring Platini, and definitely more fun to look at.
Now of course none of this is exactly news. The basic outline of the story was published in England over two years ago and even your humble correspondent has referred to it on occasion.
The big deal now is twofold:
First this isn't the British tabloids - which are easy to brush off as being typically nuts - we're talking about here, this is France Football, one of the most reputable sports publications in Europe. Among other things, they - not FIFA - are the people who award the Ballon d'Or, which was merged with the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2010.
News of the World or The Sun they ain't, and as a result they're impossible for Platini (and FIFA) to ignore.
The second contribution is that now the scandal has a name: Qatargate.
Now I'm normally not a big fan of the whole trite "whatever the hell it is, slap -gate on the end so people will know it's a bad thing" meme which is so popular amongst the chattering classes. That said, it's been tiresome to have to keep writing about "the shocking, openly corrupt Qatari World Cup 2022 bid wherein their agents scoured the globe buying votes with mountains of money and arrogance because they knew FIFA didn't have the stones to stop them".
A shorthand term has utility and if we have to live with Qatargate, then so be it.
The rest of the France Football piece, which ran to 15 pages, contained a laundry list of the details of the story which are, to fans in Britain and the US, all too depressingly familiar but which are coming as shocking news to many in Europe, among them being:
- Qatar propping up desperate, close-to-bankrupt Argentine football with a massive infusion of cash channeled through their decrepit and disgustingly corrupt FIFA ExCo member Julio Grondona.
- Nigerian Amos Adamu was suspended from the ExCo just prior to the vote after a sting conducted by the Sunday Times caught him on tape openly negotiating the price of his vote.
- Issa Hayatou (Cameroon) and Jacques Anouma (Ivory Coast) were named by a former employee of the Qatari bid committee, Phaedra Al Majid, as having both accepted $1.5 million in return for their votes. FIFA tried to launch an ivestigation but Al Majid suddenly recanted and immediately disappeared back to Qatar where she remains secluded, silent and very rich.
- Since-resigned Brazilian football grandee Ricardo Texiera was proven to have mysteriously profited mightily from several massive construction efforts in partnership with heretofore unheard-of Middle Eastern "development firms".
- Spain's Angel Maria Villar, who had a (illegal) vote-swapping deal with Qatar, was furious when Russia won the vote for 2018 instead of his own Spain-Portugal bid, but an obscenely lucrative "friendly" in Qatar was quickly arranged and he fell silent.
- Blatter admitted a year ago that Qatar colluded with Spain and Portugal to trade votes for their World Cup bids in violation of FIFA regulations, in effect contradicting an earlier investigation by the world football body that denied that there had been a vote swapping deal. “I’ll be honest" Seppy told reporters, "there was a bundle of votes between Spain and Qatar."
- Aspire, the Qatari sports agency, dumping huge sums of money for "youth initiatives" on countries which, coincidentally, have ExCo delegates.
There's more of course - much more - that a lot of European fans are reading about for the first time.
Which is nice and all, but probably won't change a thing.
American attorney Michael Garcia, a former Vice President of Interpol and the guy most people expected Barack Obama to name as head of the FBI before he decided to extend the incumbent, is now in charge of FIFA's Ethics Panel Investigations Panel, and after he delivers his much-anticipated report on the ISL scandal to the ExCo in March he and his people will begin delving into both the Russia and Qatar World Cup balloting.
(Not much is heard about the Russia process, possibly because the Russian mobsters who bought that one are a) smart enough not to leave a trail and b) people who rat them out have an unfortunate tendency to disappear.)
But it's doubtful that Garcia will find enough to get the vote overturned. Much as with Mohammad bin Hammam, where there was no doubt at all that he gave Jack Warner that money to pass around - where the hell else would it have come from? - there's much evidence but little proof.
Still, it was heartwarming to see Sepp Blatter huddling with the Qatari Crown Prince in a corner of the stadium after a friendly, deep in conversation for several minutes and then, 12 hours later, having bin Hammam suddenly fax FIFA his resignation dropping all contest of his ban and promising to shut up forever.
And of course, as noted by several learned observers in this space, Sepp Blatter's recent, unprompted - and wholly unnecessary - comments about how the US has somehow failed in its promise to deliver a really Crackerjack professional football league was nothing more than another attempt to legitimize the Qatar vote.
It makes you believe that, at least on some level, both FIFA and the Qataris are feeling some heat. There's not much doubt that bin Hammam fully intended to continue his fight but the Royal family told him he was bringing too much attention to Qatari footballing corruption and he had to go.
Of course Qatar was already under the gun due to the appalling working conditions, amounting to gross abuse and treatment which would get people arrested in most western countries, under which foreign workers are laboring as they begin the projects necessary to hold WC 2022. Having Human Rights Watch condemn you as the next best thing to slavers is something not even the Qataris can ignore.
They need more ugly publicity over all of this like they need a few truckloads of sand. Or space heaters.
Be all of that as it may, as you see and hear about David Beckham signing up with PSG today for some obscene amount of money so that he can do God knows what for them, feel free to chuckle a bit about the irony:
The only reason he's going there is for Qatari money which he's being paid as part of the deal by which that country bought the 2022 World Cup.
And people say that soccer is boring.