BERLIN -- The kickoff of the first game of the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament Thursday in Brazil is supposed to begin a sort of global vacation, a month when people across the world forget about the complications of modern life and focus instead on the simplicity of what's called "the beautiful game."
But there's a "but" this year to the World Cup: In recent weeks, the ugly side of the game has been capturing headlines amid allegations that bribery played a major role in the award of the 2022 cup to Qatar and counter-allegations that racism is behind the corruption claims.
That filthy lucre might have corrupted the purity of sport is hardly a surprise in the world of modern athletics. But even by today's jaded standards, the allegations seem bold.
The Sunday Times of London, using what it describes as "hundreds of millions of documents leaked from the heart of world football today," has reported in the past two weeks that a former vice president of soccer's ruling body paid millions of dollars in bribes to make sure that Qatar, his home country, won the right to host the 2022 World Cup.
The newspaper alleges that Mohamed bin Hammam arranged expensive trips for other soccer officials around the world and saw that they received lucrative work and gas contracts from the Qatari government.
Bin Hammam allegedly was hoping that the payments, referred to rather openly in emails The Times has posted on its website, would help him win FIFA's presidency in addition to ensuring that Qatar won the right to host the World Cup in 2022. The newspaper alleges that eight out of the final 23 eligible votes for the games were up for sale -- though only 22 voted in the final round.
Qatar's World Cup committee claims that regardless of the allegations, Bin Hammam had no official role in the panel's bid to host the cup, so it can't be held responsible for his actions. But The Times reports that the documents it obtained indicate Bin Hammam was considered very important to Qatar's bid.
FIFA has assured the world that it has investigated the Qatar claims and will make its report, which was finished over the weekend, public the day after the World Cup ends next month. But that investigation can't possibly include The Times' allegations, and major World Cup sponsors -- Adidas, Budweiser, Coke, Sony and Visa included -- have said they expect the allegations to be thoroughly investigated amid suspicions that FIFA has done a less-than-exhaustive job.
FIFA President Sepp Blatter reportedly has told African and Asian soccer officials that the allegations are overblown.
"There is a sort of storm against FIFA relating to the Qatar World Cup," Blatter reportedly said to African officials. "Sadly, there's a great deal of discrimination and racism."
To Asian officials, he reportedly noted: "I don't know what the reasoning is behind this but we must maintain unity. ... It is the best way to say to all the destructors in the world, they want to destroy not the game, but they want to destroy the institution."
The Times' allegations are hardly the first involving the games in Qatar. As soon as the award was announced, many around the world questioned holding a massive outdoor event in a tiny place where the average high temperature in June and July is above 105 degrees. Then the English newspaper The Guardian reported what it said were hundreds of deaths in construction of the Qatari infrastructure to prepare for the 2022 games and estimates that thousands more would die in those preparations. The newspaper equated the working conditions, including workers not being paid, to "modern-day slavery."
Antoine Duval, a senior researcher at the international sports law section of the Dutch research center the Asser Institute, said there was nothing new about allegations of corruption against FIFA, the French initials for an organization whose name in English means the International Association of Association Football (association football being the formal name for the sport Americans call soccer).
And there are likely to be more corruption allegations, Duval said, especially given how international sporting organizations -- founded to promote collegiality and amateurism -- remain structured in a modern world where sporting events earn billions.
Duval noted there's no public oversight of a sporting body such as FIFA, even though such organizations now dictate how public money is spent.
"They have enormous power, but no real responsibility," he said. "They exist outside national law, but have the power to impose national law changes. These are modern governing organizations, but the people have zero say in how these organizations operate."
Duval said FIFA and the International Olympic Committee were governed primarily by Swiss law and "Swiss courts have treated them rather favorably."
That may be a key point if any investigation ever were to uncover that bribes had been paid. One international expert in sports law said possible jurisdictions for prosecuting such a crime included Switzerland, the other countries that had bid for the tournament or perhaps in the country where "specific relevant actions occurred."
But he also said it might be too accepted a transgression to draw a criminal case. "It is quote common in all walks of business for a governmental entity to make concessions to private business to locate within that government's territory. It is certainly nothing unique to football or sports," he said.
Still, it's a measure of the controversy that the attorney asked not to be identified for fear he'd be blacklisted from dealing with FIFA again.
The stakes are high. In the 2010 World Cup cycle, FIFA took in almost $4.2 billion, and, after expenses, was able to add $621 million to its reserves, which now stand at more than $1 billion. According to FIFA's financial report, the average employee salary reached $167,000.
This tournament is expected to be more lucrative, with anticipated revenue of about $4.5 billion.
That's because billions of eyes will turn toward television screens -- beginning with Brazil versus Croatia on Thursday -- following the fate of 32 national teams that will compete in the monthlong event.
Millions will attend the games, paying an average of $461 a night for a hotel room in Rio, in what is without doubt one of the world's great international spectacles. The United States will play Germany, Ghana and Portugal in the initial round-robin phase. Other tournament luminaries include Argentines, Italians and Mexicans. In short, a broad representation of people around the world.
The tournament, every four years, is seen as a chance for this diverse mass of humanity to share in the joy of watching (often) highly paid professional soccer players perform for country and pride. Workers worldwide are sick on game days, or glued to office televisions and ignoring phones that won't ring much in any case, at least until halftime.
Still, the Times allegations raise questions about how the where of the tournament is decided. As the newspaper noted, they reveal "secrets of how Qatar's top football chief exploited his nation's vast sovereign wealth to help win crucial votes for its World Cup bid."
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