Suspicion of football corruption shows limits of Qatar’s ‘soft power’

Qatar’s Nasser al-Khelaifi, chairman of the Qatari beIN Media Group

The announcement that Swiss officials are inves­tigating Qatar’s Nasser al-Khelaifi and a former senior FIFA executive on allegations of corruption places Qatar and world football back un­der scrutiny.
Investigators are examining al­legations of bribery surrounding Khelaifi, head of the Doha-based beIN Media Group, and ex-FIFA Secretary-General Jérôme Valcke over the sale of FIFA World Cup broadcast rights.
“It is suspected that Jérôme Val­cke accepted undue advantages from a businessman in the sports rights sector in connection with the award of media rights for cer­tain countries at the FIFA World Cups in 2018, 2022, 2026 and 2030 and from Nasser al-Khelaifi in connection with the award of me­dia rights for certain countries at the FIFA World Cups in 2026 and 2030,” a statement from the Swiss attorney general’s office said.
The proceedings against Khelaifi offer one of the first direct links to Qatar in investigations by law enforcement authorities in Swit­zerland, the United States and France of FIFA, international foot­ball and the World Cup bidding contests.
BeIN strongly denied the claims.
Although the investigation is bad news for Khelaifi, it is unlikely he and Valcke are the only individ­uals who will be implicated in the investigation.
Khelaifi’s rising status in Euro­pean football earned him a seat on UEFA’s strategy panel as a delegate of top clubs. Scrutiny of FIFA and Qatar will intensify as a result, ex­perts said.
“In isolation, it would be easy to explain today’s developments as being yet another example of an al­legedly dubious practice in a sport characterised by an endless flow of misdemeanours,” Simon Chad­wick, professor of sports enterprise at Britain’s Salford University, told Agence France-Presse. “However, this is not an isolated incident, and forms part of an ongoing narrative that has built-up around both FIFA and Qatar.”
World football is still dealing with a 2015 scandal in which sev­eral FIFA officials were arrested. Qatar is now at the centre of the storm engulfing the sport and the news from Geneva caps a tumultu­ous period for the emirate.
The investigation also puts Qa­tar’s policy of diplomatic “soft power” in the spotlight.
One of the most high-profile attempts to use football as “soft power” to influence foreign opin­ion was Qatar’s transfer of Brazil­ian superstar Neymar to PSG, a move overseen by Khelaifi earlier this year. It now seems that Qatar may have overreached with that move.
The French club sealed its trans­fer of Neymar from Barcelona for a record $260 million in its bid for a first Champions League title. After PSG’s offseason spree was signed off by Khelaifi, however, European football administrative body UEFA said it was investigating possible violations of sport-specific rules designed to curb excessive spend­ing on transfer fees and wages.
After rumours of the World Cup being moved from Qatar because of its political crisis with other Gulf countries, Doha’s government communications office stated the 2022 World Cup “was not up for negotiation.” However, questions about its ability to host the event linger and allegations of corrup­tion will not help.
Khelaifi’s connections are un­deniable; he is a tennis-playing friend of the country’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The fact that he has been named is no­table.
The Paris offices of BeIN Sports were searched by magistrates from the French financial prosecutor’s office and investigators from an anti-corruption unit, the federal agency said.
Properties were searched in Greece, Italy and Spain and Valcke was questioned in Switzerland, the Swiss federal prosecution office said. It cited cooperation from an EU criminal investigation agency.
“Multiple premises were searched, assets were seized and interviews were conducted as a re­sult of this joint operation,” the EU body known as Eurojust said in a statement.
BeIN said that its “employees on site cooperated with the authori­ties until the end of the search.” It said the group “refutes all accusa­tions” by Swiss investigators and that “the company will fully co­operate with the authorities and is confident as to the future develop­ments of this investigation.”
No suspect was detained, said Swiss prosecutors, whose work investigating FIFA and suspected money laundering linked to World Cup hosting bids began in Novem­ber 2014.
FIFA has never announced whether BeIN secured 2026 and 2030 World Cup broadcasting rights.
Swiss prosecutors allege Valcke received “undue advantages” from an unidentified businessman to award certain media rights for four World Cups from 2018 through 2030.
The criminal proceeding was opened March 20 but not revealed until October 12, the Swiss federal office said.
Since FIFA’s much-discredited executive committee picked Rus­sia and Qatar in December 2010 to host World Cup tournaments in 2018 and 2022, respectively, the gas-rich emirate has bought up PSG with sovereign wealth and in­stalled Khelaifi as president. BeIN has acquired a broad portfolio of rights including from UEFA for the Champions League and national team matches.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.