Accusations of shady practices in the ranks of world soccer's governing body are flying ahead of FIFA's upcoming vote for a new president, with one leading contender dropping out of the race this week to protest the "dictatorship" established by long-standing President Sepp Blatter.
(UPDATE: Swiss authorities said on May 27 that they had opened criminal proceedings against individuals on suspicion of mismanagement and money laundering related to the award of rights to host the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups. Read more here.)
With the May 29 vote looming, RFE/RL's Claire Bigg spoke with German sports reporter Robert Kempe, co-author of a documentary detailing what it describes as rampant corruption in Blatter's FIFA.
RFE/RL: Your documentary film, titled The Selling Of Football, accuses FIFA of large-scale corruption and bribery, particularly during the process of selecting host countries for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Would you say the right to host the tournaments was actually "sold" to Russia and Qatar?
Robert Kempe: When you research this topic, everything you find supports the notion that it's not the bids presented by Russia and Qatar that proved persuasive. Even the head of FIFA's evaluation commission, when you speak to him, admits that Qatar and Russia submitted the weakest bids for 2018 and 2022. This means there could not have been any objective reasons for the election of Russia and Qatar, since their bids were ranked as the most risky. So there must have been other elements of persuasion.
When you start asking around -- and this is what we did for our documentary film -- obvious clues and indications emerge that payments were made by Qatar, even if the implicated FIFA executive members deny it.
RFE/RL: The film names three FIFA board members who were allegedly paid $1.5 million each by Qatar for their votes. At least one of them is suspected of selling his vote to Russia, too. Do you believe there have been other instances of bribery which we still don't know about in connection with the upcoming World Cup in Russia?
Kempe: Yes, of course. I think this is only the tip of the iceberg...
Concerning Russia, we already know about the Lefkaritis case (Marios Lefkaritis, a member of FIFA's Executive Committee from Cyprus whose votes for the locations for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments were scrutinized in a corruption investigation). He claims this had nothing to do with his vote, but once again we are dealing with corruption connected to conflicts of interest. But it's a lot more difficult to investigate possible bribery and pressure of FIFA executive members in Russia than in Qatar. I think there's still a lot we still don't know about. We clearly don't have the whole picture right now.
RFE/RL: Why is it more difficult to probe corruption in Russia than in Qatar?
Kempe: First of all, it's a lot tougher to work as a journalist in Russia. It's definitely more difficult to obtain information, to speak to people who were involved in the Russian bid. There are usually whistle-blowers, people who are ready to say what happened, who can give clues and point you in the right direction. In Russia, however, we've had trouble finding such people so far.
RFE/RL: FIFA is set to elect its president on May 29. Why are you so sure that Sepp Blatter, the incumbent FIFA head, will be reelected?
Kempe: Sepp Blatter has been in FIFA for 40 years. He's been FIFA president for 17 years. He has deeply influenced FIFA in recent years. He has created a system that he knows inside out. Blatter has professionalized FIFA's development program in such a way that small nations -- in the Caribbean, for instance -- are all grateful to him for the $250,000 that he gives them annually, in this case, not counting additional development aid. Blatter knows how to take advantage of this gratefulness.
Monserrat, for example, a Caribbean island with 5,000 inhabitants, has the same voting weight as the Russian, the German, or the British (sic -- English) football federation, which have millions and millions of members. This Caribbean island is not interested in FIFA's reputation or in corruption allegations. People there just hope the money keeps flowing. As long as this system remains in place, Sepp Blatter will stay in power.
Of course, it's not just the Caribbean. Blatter is getting a number of votes in Europe, and Issa Hayatou, the head of the Confederation of African Football, has already promised him 54 votes. If you sum up all the votes that have been guaranteed to him, he already has about half. FIFA's time for change has not come yet.
RFE/RL: In your opinion, what does Blatter's reelection mean for the future of FIFA and for international soccer more generally?
Kempe: In terms of transparency, nothing will change. Blatter's reelection will not enable us to find out more about the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. This will continue. There won't be any change, any reforms in FIFA either under Blatter. He will maintain the status quo. The big FIFA cleanup will definitely not begin.
RFE/RL: FIFA has firmly rejected the accusations leveled in your film and has even branded you and your colleagues liars. Had you expected such a harsh reaction?
Kempe: Yes. FIFA tends to become defensive and sometimes even lashes back. We saw this with the whistle-blower Bonita Mersiades, the former head [of communications of] the Australia 2022 bid. They really had a go at her on television. So, yes, it's not surprising that FIFA reacted the way they did.
RFE/RL: You describe Russia's bid as weak and marred by corruption. Do you think Russia does not deserve to host the 2018 World Cup?
Kempe: I'm not saying that. I think Russia is a great football nation with many fans, many people who love football. Russia absolutely deserves hosting a World Cup. But FIFA's system of granting hosting rights functions in such a way that it involves influencing those who vote and vying for votes. And Russia took part in this. It played the game.
RFE/RL: The so-called "FIFA law" passed by Russia has been criticized for curtailing the rights of workers building stadiums and other World Cup infrastructure in the country. What kind of new restrictions are we taking about?
Kempe: This law is meant to regulate the preparations and the conduct of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Among other things, it dramatically cuts back the rights of workers with regard to vacation time, overtime, and weekend work. Trade unions have even compared the conditions to slavery and have demanded that the law be withdrawn. Russia introduced this law in order to meet the guarantees it gave to FIFA. Russia's sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, made this clear in our film. And FIFA has congratulated Russia for this law.
RFE/RL: Is modifying regulations overseeing workers' rights a precondition for all countries wishing to host the World Cup or was Russia an exception in that respect?
Kempe: Bidding countries are required to give state guarantees to FIFA. FIFA requests that bidding countries fulfill a number of obligations, including resolving the situation with workers. Some countries respond by drafting laws; others find other ways. Russia chose to pass a new law, a very restrictive one, by all indications.
RFE/RL: Is the goal to speed up construction on future World Cup sites?
Kempe: The aim is to regulate the holding of the World Cup and the preparations and to make sure the vast numbers of foreign migrant workers who flock to hosting countries ahead of World Cups are not hampered in their work. The goal is also to ensure that all the stadiums are ready in time and that the World Cup is not threatened in any way by national regulations. But the side effect in Russia is that workers on World Cup construction sites are being massively restricted and stripped of their rights.