LONDON — When it comes to the world's biggest game and the world's biggest tournament, allegations of corruption are never far behind — and often don't appear to be too far from the truth.
The bidding process to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups has turned into a circus — with allegations of some FIFA executives supposedly offering to sell their votes, trash-talking and alleged vote-trading between bidding nations, and fierce arguments over which continent should get to host the 2018 event.
FIFA, the governing body of world football, is under the spotlight, and there's billions at stake and plenty of reputations on the line. Eleven countries are vying for the right to host the next two premier single-sport competitions in the world — and 24 FIFA officials get to decide who wins on Dec. 2 in Zurich.
"The awarding of the World Cup is a multibillion dollar judgment. It's huge. It doesn't get any bigger than that in terms of finances in the world of sports," said Declan Hill, a Canadian investigative journalist who has published a book called "The Fix: Soccer & Organized Crime." ''World Cup dominates sports. It makes the World Series and Super Bowl and all these things look like peanuts."
The latest FIFA scandal is akin to the one that rocked the Olympics, when IOC members took bribes to vote for Salt Lake City as host of the 2002 Winter Games. That led to some big changes in the International Olympic Committee's voting system.
But at FIFA, it appears that votes are still for sale. And that will be likely to be on the agenda Thursday and Friday when the executive committee meets in Zurich.
England, Russia, Belgium-Netherlands and Spain-Portugal are in the running for the 2018 World Cup, while the United States, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Qatar are looking to host the tournament in 2022. This is the first time that two World Cups have been decided at the same time — a potential bonanza for would-be vote sellers or traders.
Earlier this month, The Sunday Times in London released footage of interviews with FIFA executives Amos Adamu of Nigeria and Reynald Temarii of Tahiti appearing to offer their votes for sale. The ethics committee provisionally suspended both until Nov. 17 — meaning they could still vote on Dec. 2.
"The information in the article has created a very negative impact on FIFA and on the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups," FIFA President Sepp Blatter, speaking shortly after the reports emerged, said in his standard understated way.
Soon after, however, other reports alleged that former FIFA general secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen said Spain-Portugal and Qatar had struck a deal giving each seven votes from the 24-man FIFA executive committee for their respective tournaments.
"The whole thing is cloaked in conflicts of interest," Hill said. "Blatter depends on many of the people that he's supposed to police, in terms of voting, so he has a natural conflict of interest in terms of wanting to clean it up."
Amazingly, the allegations have done little to tarnish the image of FIFA, even though International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge urged Blatter — himself an IOC member — to make FIFA more transparent.
"I encouraged him to do exactly what he has done and to try to clean out as much as possible," Rogge said Tuesday in Acapulco.
The difference between the IOC and FIFA, however, could be the desire to come clean.
"Within the Olympic association, there were actually people that wanted to make sure that it was reformed. There were very high level American politicians that were pressing for reform," Hill said. "Here, there's nobody inside FIFA that's really taking up the mantle for reform."
Trash-talking has also become a part of the vote.
Last week, Russian bid leader Alexey Sorokin reportedly criticized England's bid to host the 2018 tournament by saying that London has a high crime rate and a youth drinking problem. England demanded a formal apology but Sorokin refused, saying his comments in a Russian newspaper were mistranslated.
While FIFA said Wednesday it was studying the situation, former FIFA vice president Vyacheslav Koloskov added to the controversy.
"It's a comical situation. The English are afraid of how badly their bid is going," Koloskov was quoted as saying on the Russian online paper championat.ru. "There is no reason for Russia to fear sanctions. There won't even be an investigation. The behavior of the English is absolutely primitive. Instead of talking about their own advantages and merits, they try to disorient their rivals."
Scandals and surreptitious deals, however, are nothing new to FIFA and its executives.
In the vote for the 2006 World Cup, which Blatter desperately wanted to go to South Africa, Oceania Football Confederation President Charlie Dempsey abstained, giving Germany a one-vote win.
The Scottish-born Dempsey, who died in 2008 at age 86, never disclosed why he abstained. But in reaction, Blatter decided to create a rotation system, moving the World Cup from continent to continent. First up, unsurprisingly considering the outcome of the 2006 vote, was Africa in 2010.
The rotation continued through the next vote, and Brazil was given the right to host the tournament in 2014 — becoming the first country from South America to host the event since Argentina in 1978.
Following that, for reasons never clearly explained, FIFA scrapped the rotation system — hence the disparaging comments coming from rival bids this year.
But even this year's vote caused a stir when FIFA announced that countries could bid for both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups at the same time. Over months of campaigning, every European bidder withdrew from the 2022 vote, and every non-European bidder withdrew from consideration from 2018.
One might call that collusion.
Previously, the biggest corruption scandal FIFA faced was in 2001 when marketing partner ISL/ISMM went bankrupt amid allegations of bribery, plunging the football body into a financial crisis. That fueled accusations that Blatter and other sports administrators were being bribed by the company.
Blatter had his answer ready, albeit with an admission that corruption was at least possible in his organization.
"Never have I tried to corrupt anyone else and I am not corruptible," Blatter said. "I can tell you that in the 26 years I have spent at FIFA, attempts have been made to bribe me or to influence me in some form ... but never ever have I bribed anyone and I cannot be bribed."
The FIFA Finance Committee began to investigate corruption allegations within the FIFA ranks following the collapse of ISL/ISMM, but Blatter suspended the probe in 2002 — again for reasons unknown.
Ahead of the 2006 World Cup, credit company MasterCard tried to prevent FIFA from signing Visa as a sponsor for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. MasterCard took FIFA to court and settled for $90 million.
U.S. District Judge Loretta A. Preska said in late 2006 that although FIFA's slogan is "fair play," its dealing "with FIFA's long-standing 'partner' MasterCard constitutes the opposite of 'fair play' and violates FIFA's own requirement that 'its negotiators deal honorably with its business partners.'"
Also, FIFA vice president Jack Warner was embroiled in a scandal around the 2006 World Cup for selling tickets at inflated prices through a travel agency owned by his family. FIFA cleared him of any wrongdoing but demanded that his son pay a fine of nearly $1 million.
FIFA, which earns about 90 percent of its income from the World Cup and has a fancy new stone-and-glass headquarters in the hills above Zurich, has gone to great lengths to shift the focus to other topics, like the football academies it has set up in developing nations.
But corruption allegations continue to hound its golden goose — the World Cup — and no country yet has the gumption to take on FIFA.
"I don't think any European or international politician has really taken up the mantle and said something needs to be done," Hill said. "The natural countries that would do it are trying to bid for the World Cup." (AP)