Qatarstrophic consequences for Bin Hammam-FIFA alliance
On June 16 2008, FIFA president Sepp Blatter wrote gushingly to the Qatari Mohamed Bin Hammam, thanking him for his contribution to the campaign that, a decade before in June 1998, gained the Swiss the presidency of FIFA. “Without you, dear Mohamed, none of this would ever have been possible”. Blatter called on the rhetoric of the team: “Everyone knows that in football, very few matches are ever won by one player alone. Therefore I would like to thank you for your support and above all for your tireless work back then”. What was this ‘work’ without which Blatter couldn’t have become FIFA president, without which he could never have consolidated his dictatorial hold on power throughout the first decade of his presidency and beyond? What kind of ‘player’ was Bin Hammam in the campaign team that garnered the votes of FIFA congress delegates that elevated Blatter from chief executive/general secretary to president?
The grateful tributes from Blatter to Bin Hammam were to be shattered in the following years as a successful Qatari bid in December 2010 to host the men’s World Cup 2022 was followed by a falling out between Bin Hammam, then president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and Blatter, stimulating a challenge from Bin Hammam the following year for the presidency itself. This challenge was scuppered by the revelations that Bin Hammam had passed hundreds of thousands of US dollars to notorious Trinidad and Tobago politician and CONCACAF president Jack Warner, for dispersal to FIFA Congress delegates from the Caribbean. The precise circumstances of the fallout between Blatter and Bin Hammam remain unclear, but it was then inevitable that the alliance that had shaped influential FIFA powerplays in the decade after the Brazilian Havelange passed on the reins of power was not just in disarray, but utterly disintegrated. In the mid-1990s it was becoming absolutely clear that sport was becoming increasingly important in the tiny oil-rich dictatorship of Qatar. It could raise the international profile of the country, whilst professing the simultaneously collective and meritocratic values of team play. It could create new global markets via the staging of sports events and so provide some economic alternative fow when the oil might begin to run dry.
It was becoming increasingly clear that members of the dynastic elite could operate effectively in positions combining lobbying and diplomacy, speaking for the less well-off neighbours of the Asian confederation as well as the developing football culture of the small state itself. When you looked closely at what was going on within the FIFA corridors of power, one name emerged, alongside some influential figures from Thailand or Malaysia or Saudi Arabia – Mohamed Bin Hammam, of Qatar was working hard for acceptability at the highest levels of the AFC, and in the informal corridors of power of FIFA. If Michel Platini – of course, later to become UEFA president and one of those on the FIFA executive committee to vote for Qatar as 2022 host – was the public face of Blatter’s bid for the 1998 presidency, Bin Hammam was the behind-the-scenes patron providing private flights and unlimited funds for Blatter – the latter temporarily leaving his post as chief executive in order to campaign for the presidency – to jet around the world telling Congress delegates what he could do for their football associations and their national football development. And this was in the context where – as is still the case – a single vote from Vanuatu or American Samoa was equal to the single vote from Brazil or Germany. Bin Hammam and his sources in Qatar provided and funded the ‘tireless work’ that secured Blatter the FIFA presidency.
Blatter has been a genius of Machiavellian scheming and organizational survival, not least because when challenged he drops people ruthlessly. Bin Hammam, feted by FIFA in those formative years in the 1990s, architect of Qatar’s classic lobbying strategy to win the vote for the 2022 World Cup, rising star as president of the Asian confederation, has learned what it means to take on Blatter and the FIFAcrats, adopting long-held practices and strategies but finding himself isolated and alone when the dirty washing emerges from the FIFA cleansing process.