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Reports of corruption cast shadow over World Cup

June 6, 2014 at 6:47 PM EDT
Leading up to the World Cup kickoff, an investigative series in the New York Times has gathered tales of apparent bribery to exploit matches for betting purposes ahead of the previous tournament in South Africa. Moreover, the Sunday Times has published documents showing corruption behind Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 cup. Jeffrey Brown learns more from investigative journalist Declan Hill.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Hundreds of millions of people around the globe will be watching fervently next week when the World Cup, the world’s most popular sporting event, kicks off in Brazil.

But a series of reports and investigations are casting a cloud over the sport and its international governing body, FIFA.

Jeff is back with that story.

JEFFREY BROWN: One investigative series, published in The New York Times, found a match-fixing syndicate was able to manipulate several contests in the run-up to the previous World Cup in 2010. The stories included tales of apparent bribery that led to clearly suspicious calls by referees in an effort to exploit matches for betting purposes.

Separately, The Sunday Times, a British newspaper, published new documents showing corruption and payments behind Qatar’s successful bid to host the Cup in 2022.

Declan Hill is an investigative journalist who co-wrote The New York Times series. He joins us now.

So these games that were fixed in the run-up to the last World Cup, tell us briefly what happened.

DECLAN HILL, Investigative Journalist: Well, Jeffrey, it’s an extraordinary story.

There’s essentially been a syndicate working out of Singapore and Malaysia that for years have been traveling around. European police estimate they have fixed hundreds of games. They have corrupted and got to players and referees around the world.

And this was just some of their activity. They got into the officials of the South African Soccer Association, not all of them, just a couple of them. Some of those officials were quite heroic in trying to stop them, and they were fixing games literally days before the start of the 2010 World Cup.

JEFFREY BROWN: These were games, as we said, leading up to it.

Is there any evidence that it reached higher into the World Cup itself, into more meaningful games?

DECLAN HILL: Well, I think it’s an excellent question, because the fixes have been coming to these big international soccer tournaments for at least 20 years. They have come chronically and consistently.

And what we found in the New York Times investigation was, strangely, the FIFA investigation report that we were using as some of our sources stopped their investigation at simply the exhibition matches before the World Cup.

So, they didn’t find any evidence of World Cup matches being fixed. On the other hand, they really weren’t looking for them. So we’re still unclear.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, this is a big part of your story, clearly. FIFA looked into all this, but you’re suggesting they didn’t — well, it’s not clear how hard they looked or what they did afterwards, right?

DECLAN HILL: It’s a very complicated, gray story. And there’s lots of heroes, there’s lots of villains.

But what’s clear is that this investigative report only started two years after these dodgy matches. And then it was released two years ago. And it’s kind of hung around. Lots of people inside FIFA, lots of people inside South African Soccer Association have known of its existence, have seen it, have seen all the allegations contained in the report, and yet nothing has been done.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so is there — the issue is how vulnerable, are these — the World Cup that’s about to start, these games, and what is being done to take care that this doesn’t happen again?

DECLAN HILL: I think it goes right to the question of credibility.

It’s not just that the games could or could not be fixed. It’s whether an honest fan, a fair-minded person could be watching those games thinking to themselves, hang on a second, was that a mistake or was that something worse?

And that’s what FIFA has to eliminate. They have tried fair play. They have got a new FIFA director of security, a guy named Ralf Mutschke, a former German police officer, who admitted has openly, for the first time FIFA history, that fixers do target these games. And they’re trying to do something, but it may be a question too little too late at this moment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and as you showed and as the FIFA investigation showed, the way in was through particular individuals, right, through referees who would make certain calls, but even then looked funny, I guess.

DECLAN HILL: Actually — actually, Jeffrey, it’s far worse.

I have been following this story for a number of years. I have written a couple of books on this. But what we show with The New York Times was, it wasn’t just dodgy referees, the odd corrupted player. It’s now moved up into the very high-level soccer officials of National Association, so not FIFA itself, but some of the soccer associations.

For example, the South African Soccer Association, there were officials inside the South African Association that was organizing the last World Cup that were saying, hey, some of our colleagues are clearly corrupt.

Which of those officials were corrupt, we don’t know. We do know that there were allegations of death threats. There was bribes. You know, there was lots of money floating around, but we still haven’t been able to get to the bottom of this murky scandal.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now I want to move to the — what we also learned about the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, and apparently with a lot of money changing hands. What do we know at this point?

DECLAN HILL: Well, the decision to award the World Cup, which, as you know, is the world’s biggest sporting tournament by different factors — it far outranks the Olympics in terms of world attention and cash.

Almost from the very minute in December 2010 that Qatar was given the World Cup, there have been questions, why would such a country, which is so small, with such a small population base, tiny, really, much smaller than even Washington, D.C., being awarded this huge sporting tournament?

And our colleagues at The Sunday Times over in London announced last Sunday that they had millions, their words, of e-mails, cached e-mails both from FIFA and former FIFA officials alleging a series of very systematic payments to various soccer officials to award the World Cup hosting rights to Qatar.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Declan Hill, thank you so much.

DECLAN HILL: Thank you, Jeffrey.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we have more online. You can find a World Cup primer on the Rundown. And a viewer’s guide for exciting matches to watch out for, that is on our World page.