Why did FIFA choose to hold the next World Cup in a country with extreme weather conditions, no suitable stadiums, little interest in football, and an unusual date that will alter the usual calendar of the season globally? DMAX premieres ‘The Men Who Sold the World Cup’, Discovery’s new original documentary production that investigates the circumstances surrounding Qatar’s choice as host country to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022. On Monday, January 17 at 22:30 hours, the Veo Tv channel offers this special program with which it inaugurates the new premium documentary offer of the channel every Monday night.
In recent years, numerous corruption scandals, suspicions of bribery, and possible extortion have surrounded many of the decisions announced by FIFA. In December 2010, the largest institution in world football starred in one of the most controversial episodes in FIFA’s history by announcing the choice of Qatar as the host country of the 2022 edition of the World Cup. How is it possible that a country with a climate so warm as to not be able to host the competition in summer at the end of the regular football season, whose football hobby is residual, but which is governed by rich and powerful leaders, is the best possible candidate?
Based on exclusive interviews with the protagonists of the story, access to documents and relevant data of the case and the presence of some responsible and witnesses of that election, this new documentary production of Discovery investigates the truth about why the competition was awarded to great tycoons of the world of football who occupied positions of power and influence, thus conditioning the credibility and transparency of the institution.
Directed by Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme, ‘The Men Who Sold the World Cup’ reveals how the world’s biggest football event was sold to the highest bidder by very influential figures at the international level in the darkest period in the history of this sport.
Blatter, Klinsmann and Donovan, in ‘The Men Who Sold the World Cup’
Sunday Times investigators Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert uncovered in 2015 the atmosphere of corruption that prevailed in FIFA in a report that went around the world. ‘The men who sold the World Cup’ delves into the evidence revealed by this journalistic work to show the audience the meticulous process of investigation they carried out to uncover the mafia network of the organization. Thanks to their work, the FBI and the Tax Agency intervened within an institution in which the only thing in the world was corruption.
Following the choice of Qatar to host the tournament, the cascade of controversies surrounding the tournament has not ceased. From testimonies of senior football officials confessing to strange practices in the election process to official accusations of leaders such as the one received by Sepp Blatter – who was president of FIFA until 2015 – for being involved in a large-scale corruption case that had a direct influence on Qatar’s election for 2022.
In ‘The Men Who Sold the World Cup’ the audience will learn the ins and outs of a body that governs world football and has been run for years by people involved in ongoing cases of bribery, blackmail and corruption. New testimonies of witnesses who witnessed that process, as well as the interventions of Sepp Blatter himself, his former press chief and other figures of world football such as Jurgen Klinsmann -former German footballer famous for his years at AS Monaco or Tottenham Hotspur, of which he is its current technical director- and Landon Donovan -former American footballer and legend of the American national team-. From MARCA we have interviewed the two researchers (Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert) who uncovered the case to learn more about a World Cup full of shadows.
Entrevista a Heidi Blake
Why do you think ‘The Men Who Sold the World Cup’ will captivate viewers?
One of the things about the whole FIFA story that I found incredibly absorbing as a journalist is that the characters involved in this drama are stranger than fiction. It’s such an extraordinary cast of strange and amazing villains. Because the culture of corruption at FIFA was allowed to fester for so many decades, completely unchecked and without any real oversight or accountability, the extremes of corrupt behavior are breathtaking, almost to the point of being comical at times. I think the film handles it very well. It shows the seriousness of the corruption that occurred, but also these moments of hilarity where the corruption becomes so blatant that it’s almost ridiculous. He does a great job of capturing the kind of Bond villain nature of some of the corruption in Blatter’s FIFA as well. It’s great to see what (producers) Dan and Morgan have done with it. They’ve done a brilliant job of translating it to the screen and making the story really come to life.
Can you choose a highlight of all this work?
One of my favorite sequences is the whole idea of the Bond villain, Dr. Strangelove. Blatter is standing at a podium at a press conference describing how people think of them as a group of evil That’s one of those true comedy moments.
Why is it such a significant story?
Personally, I’m not a soccer fan, so this was a strange story for me to be involved in for so many years because it wasn’t something that initially resonated with me on a personal level. But I was fascinated by the story for two reasons. One, because the scope of the corruption was breathtaking and went beyond anything I had seen before as a journalist. We had the kind of granular detail that documented some of the corruption and payoffs. But also, because soccer is so beloved by billions of people around the world and inspires so many young people, especially in parts of the world where life is hard and sources of inspiration are scarce. So to see the people who are supposed to run the game appropriate it and drain it of that meaning,
FIFA officials got away with it until the FBI finally investigated them, didn’t they?
Yes. I don’t think it occurred to FIFA officials that the FBI could find a foothold in international law to hold them accountable, but the FBI’s intervention was enormous. In fact, we had reached the point where we had become desperate that action would actually be taken to hold FIFA officials accountable. I remember feeling really dejected. I thought, “We’ve spent years working on this, we’ve put all this evidence in, nothing is going to change and Blatter is still there and the world cup is still happening in Qatar.” And then waking up to read about the FBI raids and thinking, “finally someone has found a way to hold them accountable.” And that was a great, great moment, for sure.
So it was almost a kind of vindication?
Yes, absolutely. It was incredibly depressing to see Blatter get reelected shortly after we published our book. We spent so much time working on this, and our work played an important role in shedding quite a bright light on the corruption that was going on at FIFA. And we were certainly very pleased that the FBI had managed to intervene so dramatically and really take action. I certainly think the end of the Blatter era was a big step forward for world soccer.
Do you think your research has made a difference?
I think the ousting of Sepp Blatter is a huge, huge development and a huge step forward. Obviously, we are dismayed to see that the World Cup is still taking place in Qatar despite everything that we expose and despite the horrors that have subsequently come to light, particularly around the appalling treatment of migrant workers who are building their infrastructure there for the World Cup. That’s really depressing. But having said that, the fact that Blatter is gone, the fact that future World Cup bid processes are being conducted differently, and that anti-corruption reforms have been enacted, are already encouraging steps. I guess Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it’s good to see those gradual changes.
You and Jonathan Calvert have been working on this story in a secret bunker. Did you ever feel any danger?
We certainly felt a little paranoid at times while working on this story. With these things, it’s always hard to disentangle how much of that is because you’ve been working 18 hours a day for weeks and weeks without a single day off, and you’re exhausted, it’s 3 a.m. and your mind is a little fuzzy . . And so how much of that is the cloak-and-dagger nature of the world that you’re investigating? I think with this story, there were a few moments where we started to get a little worried that we were being watched or followed in the bunker. At one point, we were tipped off that a large private intelligence agency had been hired to try to find out who our source was. So we stepped up our security efforts and made sure we were doing counter-surveillance on our way into the bunker. It’s certainly a murky world.
The most vital aspect for you was protecting the source, wasn’t it?
Absolutely. Obviously, we were very, very committed to making sure that the source was not exposed and did not suffer any harm as a result of his very courageous decision to report all of this. As journalists, the most sacrosanct principle is to protect your sources. And it would have been devastating if we had not been able to do that. That’s why we take it very, very seriously.
Can you describe the enthusiasm you get from investigative journalism?
In many ways, as an investigative journalist, you’re dealing with an incredibly serious subject. It can be difficult, exhausting, and complicated, but at the same time, a great element is that it’s a great adventure. You get to dive into worlds you would never normally explore in the ordinary course of life and learn about all these extraordinary characters, meet them, and have late-night meetings with sources who deliver information that opens up the story. There are these real moments of adrenaline and excitement. I guess that’s why sometimes I don’t feel like this is work suitable for adults because it seems like it shouldn’t be as much fun. It’s certainly not all fun. But there are definitely moments where the work is very, very exciting.
Do you feel fortunate to have this job?
Yes, I feel very fortunate to have a job with a platform and a way to hold really powerful and irresponsible people like Sepp Blatter accountable. I’m just an ordinary person, not a big, rich individual or a powerful statesman. We’re just ordinary, scruffy journalists, sitting in the pub thinking, “What’s our next story?” We are in a position to be able to cause major problems for extremely powerful and extremely wealthy individuals who, in reality, often victimize ordinary people, mislead the public and enrich themselves at the expense of the people they are supposed to serve. It’s very satisfying to be able to cause real problems for people like that. I really enjoy that. I probably have an inherent sense of mischief.
Why do you think investigative journalism is so vital to a democracy?
I think a free press is really the lifeblood of democracy because it is very important to hold power accountable, and if power is not accountable, corruption is inevitably the consequence. That’s what happened at FIFA. Investigative journalism was particularly important there because FIFA is obviously the subject of a lot of journalism. But there’s a press pack that covers soccer, and most of them are soccer fans and love the game and love the privileges and the access that they get as part of that press pack. So, there’s actually a bit of a conflict of interest in terms of their willingness to cover this kind of corruption because it would actually mean that they would get the door slammed in their face. I think you need outsiders with no skin in the game to come in and investigate it. You need to have an unbiased view. I guess that’s what investigative journalism can do. We’re not specialists in any particular area. We don’t rely on contacts to give us our stories. We come in from the outside, blow stuff up, leave, and don’t expect anyone to ever talk to us again. That gives us impartiality that is quite useful.
Are you concerned about the future of investigative journalism?
Since I’ve been in the business, all investigative journalists have been aware that what we do is very expensive, very time-consuming and somewhat of a risk legally. So for news organizations to put their money and their resources and their legal muscle where their words are and really back up that kind of work is a real act of courage. So, I always feel incredibly grateful to work on what I do because it takes a lot of courage and commitment on the part of the news organization you work for. It’s always a concern that the pressures of the news business cause this kind of work to fall by the wayside. But I am very encouraged to see that that has not yet been the case and that investigative journalism continues to thrive in the UK and the US, where I also do a lot of work now.
Interview with Jonathan Calvert
Do you think FIFA has changed as a result of your investigation?
Yes, it has changed tremendously. Our story really created big waves, and it really put them on the defensive. From that point on, there was a lot of pressure on FIFA. Thanks to our research, everything started to fall apart. The final blow came from the FBI investigation in April 2015. They arrested several of the FIFA officials. If you look at the organization itself, of those 24 men with voting rights at the World Cup, 14 of them have been banned from soccer or suspended or face some kind of criminal prosecution. It’s extraordinary how many of them were involved. And so it has completely changed in that sense.
Tell us the details of the investigation.
It was a pretty big undertaking. When we really got deep into it, it took a while. But there were a lot of exciting moments when we were suddenly finding a way to look up the payments that were being made to soccer officials. All of a sudden, we’d start stumbling through the computer, saying, “oh, there’s £50,000 paid to this person. who’s that?” Those were great moments. But Heidi and I were locked in that bunker for a long time. We first went up there in March and were there until early June when we did the first story. The bunker was also quite far away. Colleagues didn’t know where we were and we got a couple of emails from them saying, “We haven’t seen you in a while. Have you been fired?
It was a high-stakes investigation. Did you ever feel threatened during the course of it?
I don’t usually feel fear during an investigation. But there was a moment during the FIFA investigation when we were told that the Qataris had hired a particular detective agency that was trying to find out what we were doing. When we were in our bunker working on the files, I remember being quite paranoid and looking out the window all the time. I’d see someone outside on a bench reading a newspaper and think “oooh.” Occasionally, we’d go to the parking lot late at night and there would be strange lights, but they were basically drug dealers, so I don’t think they were interested in us. But anything is possible, I guess. Only occasionally journalists are threatened. But it’s so, so rare in our country. You have to go back to Veronica Guerin to find a journalist who was killed by an organization she was investigating. It’s not Russia yet!
Did you feel an adrenaline rush when the FIFA story first broke?
Definitely. In June 2014, the Sunday Times devoted 11 pages to that story in the first week, which is more than is devoted to any other story in peacetime. That’s a lot of work on copy that you have to be very careful with because you’re dealing with some pretty litigious people. And so it was an absolutely grueling week, and it only ended around 7 p.m. on Saturday. That’s the point where there’s nothing you can change. That’s it. Then there’s this big sigh of relief that we’ve gotten through this and over this mountain. Then there’s a little bit of excitement, but the real excitement comes the next day.
What happens then?
You see the story all over the news. All the channels talk about it, and everybody calls and says, “Can we talk to you about all this stuff?” Then you see it go everywhere in the world. We have some statistics, and at one point the story got to something ridiculous like a billion people. There were two things at play. For one thing, soccer is very popular. But it was also the start of the World Cup in Brazil, so it was very topical. We were allowed a day of euphoria, and then on Monday, because we had another six pages to write for the following Sunday, we had to get straight back to work.
Is it moments like the publication of the FIFA story that you do this work for?
Yes. I think one of the reasons I do this work is because I’ve always loved unraveling mysteries. A story like this, where you can see that something is wrong, but you can’t work out what’s wrong, and then you get under the skin and suddenly you discover new facts about it, and there’s this developing picture about what’s going on. actually happened, that’s always very fascinating. I always think I’m very lucky to do this work because our subjects change all the time. We never do the same thing. So, even though I’ve been doing exactly the same work since 2005, the work is constantly changing. So when the FIFA story came out, it was a great feeling. There’s always an element of relief that this thing you’ve been working on is actually something of value.
Why do you think investigative journalism plays a key role in society?
It works. I think we hold power accountable and we examine in a way that official agencies really don’t have the capacity to do. Also, we work along those lines where things are not necessarily illegal, but bad and immoral. There are so many things that would still be wrong today, had they not been exposed by investigative journalists. And that will apply to many more things in the future as well.
Have any of your stories resulted in genuine change?
Yes. People have ended up in jail as a result of our stories. We did a whole series on the House of Lords and expenses handling, which ended up with a Lord in jail. Cash for Questions is another good example because as a result we now have the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life. That brought in the seven standards in public life, which have actually been a very useful tool for judging our public figures. They have done a lot to clarify public life. That came at the end of a very sordid era in the late ’80s and early ’90s and has made a big difference.
Can you think of other examples where investigative journalism has really made a difference in society?
Yes, absolutely. The thalidomide story was a great campaign. Basically, what happened was that the Sunday Times journalists sat next to the lawyers and kept talking and talking about it. That was tremendously important because many of those people who had obviously suffered a lot as a result of taking thalidomide finally got compensation and it was recognized that that drug was the cause.
The MPs’ expenses scandal in the Daily Telegraph was another amazing story. I remember that period in 2011 when it was just every day. The Telegraph had control of the news agenda. it was extraordinary That has cleared up a lot of irregularities.
Investigative journalism is very expensive. Do you fear for your future?
As an interesting by-product of the Leveson Inquiry, one of the good things that have happened in the last few years is that newspapers have had to justify themselves. All these editors have had to stand up and say, “But we do important investigative journalism.” Around the time of the Leveson Inquiry, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail started investigative teams, and Heidi left to head up BuzzFeed’s investigative team.
Do you feel threatened by Internet news sites?
No. One of the ways we can differentiate ourselves in the modern era. from anyone else. The old news you can read on the Internet is to provide something original, in-depth, and high quality that you couldn’t get on a random news site. Because investigative journalism takes some time, it is quite difficult to fund. You need large organizations behind you, and they have to be reasonably forgiving. Very often it takes us a couple of months, if not more, to do a story. It’s very hard.
Tell us more.
What’s been interesting is that more and more at the Sunday Times we’ve realized that the long articles we’ve been writing on the Web site are the things that actually generate new subscriptions. People really like them. What’s also really encouraging is that, since we started doing some really, really long articles (the last one was 11,000 words), we’ve found that the engagement is really good. People read them from start to finish.
What do you hope people take away from The Men Who Sold the World Cup?
I think it’s an extraordinary story of an organization that had become corrupt at its heart. It’s interesting to understand exactly how an organization becomes like that. Then all of a sudden you can expose it to the world and it all falls apart. As with all of these things, I hope that people will come to better understand the nature of that kind of international corruption and how it might apply to other areas of life, which certainly are corrupt. It’s just that no one has caught their teeth yet.
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