In This Episode
Tariq Panja: In your career, there’s pieces of information, events, moments that do take the breath away are stunning. Qatar getting the World Cup ten years ago. I’ll never forget that moment at all.
Matt Miller: And it was the most corrupt thing I’ve ever seen in my career. And I spent a couple of years working in New Jersey politics.
Tommy Vietor: Welcome back to World Corrupt, episode two, a Crooked Media and Men in Blazers mash up.
Roger Bennett: Combination is unlikely, as Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus. Talking to listeners who, like me, believe that Old Town Road was just a thinly veiled allegory for the dangers of sports washing.
Tommy Vietor: For those of us who like a little less nuance than horses taken to old town roads [laughter] brought to the subject of governments and regimes using sports to paper over cracks of their human rights atrocities. Welcome. We are very open about our intentions to explore how the World Cup—
Roger Bennett: That greatest and most watched event in the sporting world.
Tommy Vietor: —how that competition ended up being awarded to the tiny Gulf state of Qatar. Qatar is one of the richest nations per capita, located on a finger of natural gas rich desert in the Persian Gulf, which had never qualified for the tournament and which has a population about the size of greater Las Vegas. Here we go with episode two Rog. [music break]
[clip of Sepp Blatter]: May I ask again the public notary of Zurich to give me the envelope? Thank you.
Tommy Vietor: Okay, Rog, what were we looking at there that looked like the the finale of the saddest award show of all time?
Roger Bennett: Oh, that would be the Emmys, Tommy. This is the announcement of who would host the 2022 World Cup. And it happened back in our Lord’s year, 2010 A.D. in Zurich, Switzerland, beamed live around the world from FIFA headquarters.
Tommy Vietor: So we talked a little bit about this in episode one. But remind me for for old time’s sake, what is FIFA again?
Roger Bennett: It turns out Tommy, brace yourself, FIFA is more than just a video game. Who knew? And we’re going to talk much, much more about that in this episode. But FIFA is the Federation Internationale de Football Association, the body that governs global football and the World Cup. Think about it as a sporting Congress equipped with Wolf of Wall Street, DiCaprio level morals.
Tommy Vietor: And who is this gentleman we are listening to who sounds like some sort of septuagenarian Batman villain?
Roger Bennett: Oh, that is a Swiss gem who was then the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, or the man who the late great Robin Williams during the live draw for the 1994 World Cup held at Caesar’s Palace in the actual Las Vegas, Nevada, he purposely kept referring to him as Sepp Blatter.
[clip of Robin WIlliams]: Mr. Bladder. So nice to meet you after filling you for so many years. Nice to have you. [laughter] Nice to have you. You’re full I guess.
Roger Bennett: God bless Robin Williams. And as for Blatter, he was a gent who worked his way up from being a marketing executive for Swiss watches and turned it into becoming the de facto dictator of global football as president of FIFA from 1998 to 2015 and the bloke who, on December the second, 2010, grasps the podium in his cold, tiny hands and announce the votes for hosting rights to not one but two World Cups. First, the 2018 tournament.
[clip of Sepp Blatter]: Ladies and gentlemen, I do hope the name of the winner is on both sides because I don’t know.
Roger Bennett: Stop right here. If anyone out there listening finds themselves in the position of having to announce a blatantly fixed award in the future, you might not want to publicly declare. I hope this is printed on both sides because. Yeah, I don’t know.
Tommy Vietor: Yeah. I’ve a corruption 101 question for you here. If it’s printed on both sides, do you get bribes twice or are there many fine kickbacks on both sides, to paraphrase another corrupt monster who won’t go away?
Roger Bennett: That is really a question that I normally kick over to my agent. But shortly after that pledge of innocence about, quote, “not knowing” Sepp Blatter announced the 2018 World Cup would be held in Russia, a decision we hit on last episode and one that fails fodder for an all takes exposed tweet of some kind. But next up was the announcement for 2022. And one detail I’ve not told you Tommy was that a badly kept secret in the American soccer community anyway, was that the 2022 World Cup was thought to be a lock to be coming right here? Yep. Soccer’s coming home, baby. It was meant to be coming to the United States. An event that was intended to put the game I love over the top in the nation I adore.
Tommy Vietor: So Rog, back in 1986 when, as you probably recall, the Boston Red Sox were on the cusp of winning their first World Series since 1918. My lovely parents, they will hate me for telling the story. Had taken the bottle of champagne out of the fridge. They are preparing to pop the cork when a player named Bill Buckner let a ground ball roll between his legs in the Sox went on to lose the game. It sounds like you are in a bit of a similar situation here.
Roger Bennett: Tommy, what went down was Buckner-esque for me times a million. I was actually watching in my office in New York City. I honestly had a beer open ready to celebrate this moment with the joy I would if, say, Tracy Chapman announced she was going to drop a new album. I felt a little bit like Hillary Clinton on the night of the 2016 election. This was going to be our moment‚.
Tommy Vietor: Too soon.
Roger Bennett: —my moment. Nothing could stop us now, and then.
[clip of Sepp Blatter]: The winner to organize the 2022 FIFA World Cup is Qatar. [cheering]
Roger Bennett: Oh, Sepp Blatter. You bastard. Since. Since Mr. Blatter needed just 6 seconds to break my heart. How about I give you the elevator pitch for four white guitar? Instantly felt like a total lunatical, impractical place to hold a World Cup.
Tommy Vietor: Please. I’d love to hear it.
Roger Bennett: 122 degrees in the summer.
Tommy Vietor: Okay, that’s bad.
Roger Bennett: Zero infrastructure.
Tommy Vietor: Mm hmm.
Roger Bennett: You know, they needed to build eight stadia, one of which. Hey, get this Tommy, one was meant to be built in a city that did not yet even exist outside of the PowerPoint in which it was pitched to FIFA. And in terms of football, no tradition. They were ranked, I think, 113th in the world at the time.
Tommy Vietor: So room to grow. [laughter] Let me see if I can one up you with how bad the political situation is in Qatar. So same sex relationships could be punished with jail time. Women aren’t afforded the same rights as men. And roughly 90% of Qatar’s population are foreign workers who do not have the rights of citizens. They’re often forced into exploitative, dangerous working conditions. And it’s these workers who will have to build all the infrastructure necessary for the World Cup.
Roger Bennett: So to understand how a country like this could never mind be awarded a World Cup, even be considered as a finalist for the thing. We’re going to understand how the governing body that awarded it makes those decisions today. We’re going to talk about FIFA for a minute and the way it’s co-opted the world’s game fused it with technology and broadcast rights at the end of the day, in order to line their own pockets in one of the single most blatant acts of corruption in sporting history. We are, we’re essentially go to learn how a sport that fills millions around the world with true joy and a sense of connection and memory making, cross-generationally, is run by such a bloody, truly awful set of human beings. Because really, you can think about the World Cup as the world’s greatest blockbuster movie franchise. It’s played out live. It almost makes it easy to take FIFA’s clout for granted. But the origins of FIFA and its tournament over a century ago now seem quaint and naive in comparison. [music interlude] All right, Tommy. Brace yourself.
Tommy Vietor: Ready.
Roger Bennett: Quick. Potted history of FIFA. I’m just going to give you the highlights. Founded 1904 in a backroom of the Union Des Sociétés Françaises de Sports in France.
Tommy Vietor: I imagine men bicycling with baguettes in baskets.
Roger Bennett: A lot of mustache twirling. Sure, there were scattered molecules among the plotters as well.
Tommy Vietor: Love it. Love it.
Roger Bennett: No World Cups. At the outset, it was all just Olympic football tournament’s all amateur huffing and puffing. And that was where the world that, it wasn’t actually until 1930 that the first World Cup proper was held was in Uruguay. Oh, Campeonato Mundial, the football. [applause sound]
Tommy Vietor: This was one of your favorite World Cups, right? I mean, I think we would all would like to, you know, forget about the thirties for a lot of reasons. But the U.S. men’s national team came in third. This was like the best ever. Right?
Roger Bennett: The U.S. Men’s national team made it to the semi bloody finals. Tommy, why don’t we talk about that more proudly as a nation on it?
Tommy Vietor: I dont know, own it.
Roger Bennett: It remains the United States best ever finish in a men’s World Cup. United States are the team, albeit largely made up of British expats. Big boys gents who steamrolled their opponents. They were so large physically they were nicknamed the shot putters. I love that—
Tommy Vietor: I like that too.
Roger Bennett: —I wore a tee shirt, and they made it to the semifinal. Oh, where we lost six one to Argentina—
Tommy Vietor: Tough.
Roger Bennett: —in a game that was closer than it sounds. I’m making that bet up. I like to say it, but third place and a trip home on the steamship the S.S. Munargo. Oh, bite your arm off, for third place and a trip home on a steamship this World Cup.
Tommy Vietor: Now, look, I’m proud of our boys at this cup, but it doesn’t sound quite like the global competition that the entire world stops to watch that we know of now. How did it change?
Roger Bennett: In a word, television. Heard of it? Tommy?
Tommy Vietor: I have. I love it. [appluase sound]
Roger Bennett: Oh, me too. In the face. And TV was the technology that would be really at the heart of FIFA’s expansion plans as that technology just became more and more widespread, first across Europe and then into Africa. In the words of soccer historian David Goldblatt, every four years in early July, television provided the single greatest simultaneous human collective experience the World Cup final.
[news clip]: Bobby Moore leading them up to the Royal Box to receive the jewelry, makeup and the winner’s medals to be here—
Roger Bennett: An eclipse that hits the entire world simultaneously for a whole month. And in a handful of years, televised soccer had become the world’s most popular form of entertainment, and the global brand juggernaut began to emerge that football soil was fertile. It was always begging for seeds of corruption, and thus we enter the modern period of FIFA. And to do that, we’ve enlisted the help of a great friend of this pod.
Tariq Panja: I’m Tariq Panja. I’m a global sports correspondent with The New York Times.
Roger Bennett: Let me just begin by saying I love Tariq’s writing. He, on an almost daily basis, does what we hope to accomplish on this podcast. Tariq navigates the intersection of sports and politics, and he told us that to understand FIFA’s culture of corruption. We first had to understand one man.
Tariq Panja: João Havelange is a former Brazilian football administrator and I guess you could describe him as the father of the modern FIFA or the modern FIFA system. He realized very quickly the power of football because, of course, he, as a Brazilian would have seen the enormous impact of the success of that, Pelé-led golden Brazilian football team. I would argue put Brazil on the international map and made it a place that people adored. Havelange basically short circuited the system. He realized that FIFA is one member, one vote.
Tommy Vietor: Quick question here Rog, what does he mean? One member, one vote? Is this an Electoral College situation that they need to learn about?
Roger Bennett: [laugh] We got ourselves an Electoral College situation Tommy.
Tommy Vietor: Oh no, another one.
Tariq Panja: You just create more members. He visited 80 plus countries. He was on his way around the world, basically creating football federations in Africa and other parts of the world and say you should be members of FIFA. And when you’re members of FIFA, you should vote for me because I’m your friend. And what does that mean? He promised them money. FIFA wasn’t doing that before.
Roger Bennett: So essentially he built a political machine. Old school style. It needed to be fed.
Tariq Panja: They made football the global game, and they made sure that advertisers started pouring into this. You see billboards for the first time with blue chip companies that we will recognize today. You see television advertising beginning as well. And you could say that is the formation, the birthplace. It wasn’t the United States and professional sport there. Of modern sports sponsorship was born there because all those promises that Havelange made to get these votes they needed to be paid for. He got Coca-Cola on board and Adidas, and then we see the money tree stuff.
Tommy Vietor: So Havelange wins the presidency and immediately uses that power to line his own pockets?
Roger Bennett: What we know Havelange did, thanks to Swiss prosecutors who detailed it in 2010, is that he sold FIFA’s TV marketing rights to an innocuous name company, aren’t they all, named International Sports and Leisure. Nothing to see here.
Tommy Vietor: Rolls off the tongue.
Roger Bennett: [laugh] But it was founded, by the way, by an old Havelange crony, Horst Dassler, who, if that last name sounds familiar, is also the son of Adidas founder Adi Dassler. And this allowed ISL as they catchily became known to distribute these rights, which are worth astronomical amounts at this point, and then give kickbacks to Havelange. And between he and his son in law, who also happens to be a Brazilian football executive. They were giving 42 and a half million dollars over eight years as quote, “side payments” for this. It’s a great job if you can get it.
Tommy Vietor: Yeah. My God, I got to get me some side payments. That sounds like a good, good deal.
Roger Bennett: Who doesn’t love side payments, Tommy? And this podcast should be sponsored by side payments. [laugh] But we don’t want to get too mired in the who’s the what’s the whens, the where’s the whys of it all?
Tommy Vietor: [laugh] You mean the facts like the AP stylebook?
Roger Bennett: Well, I hate those things. Hate, those pesky things. The facts. What we want to tell you is that FIFA was corrupt AF and the gent that was running it from 1974 to 1998 was on the hot take. And in 1998, the bloke who succeeded him was cut from the same smarmy cloth. You remember him, that Swiss infection of your down-belows, Sepp Blatter.
Tariq Panja: Blatter learned the kind of pork barrel nature of sports governance, sports politics at the knee of João Havelange. Sepp Blatter is is a diminutive fellow. He had a very large personality, a man who basically was confident in his ability to get people to like him. He didn’t it doesn’t mean the fans to get the people that count. That’s the thing with FIFA. He didn’t care if he was booed. That didn’t matter because the people that blew him are supporters. They don’t have a vote. Blatter managed to curry favor in the same way Havelange through force of personality and through. He was a canny wheeler dealer as well. He was able to get the people that mattered to him to like him in enough numbers. People would describe him as kind of a charming figure. You know, in some ways he was kind of quick witted, if you would, in that world. But outside of it and you see most people would abhor some of this stuff that he would come out. With. You’ve seen reports of, you know, when he talked about women’s football wearing tighter shorts.
Tommy Vietor: Did that, did that guy just say that women should wear tight shorts? Rog? Is that, is that what Sepp Blatter just said?
Roger Bennett: Sepp Blatter, yes, he is. Whatever kind of guy your meaning that kind of guy.
Tommy Vietor: Gross.
Roger Bennett: If you think about Havelange is Don Corleone like I do. Blatter, then some sort of awful kind of Michael Fredo hybrid who just also happens to preside over FIFA when his bottom line was going to the moon.
Tariq Panja: The period ’98 to the end of Sepp Blatter, saw an enormous increase in television income through sales of broadcasting rights all around the world and sponsorship agreements. You know, what we’re talking about in this Sepp Blatter era was over that four year period. Each sponsor would be paying circa 100 to $150 million to have their brand exclusively, certainly when it comes to their category, connected to FIFA. The point we have to remember here is there’s nothing bigger in terms of eyeballs and the planet FIFA’s World Cup in particular, it is bigger than the Olympic Games. I think maybe for listeners in the U.S., that might be a little bit hard to believe because I think in the states, the the Olympics is the thing that the entire family comes together for. But I guess in much of the rest of the world, it is the football World Cup. And that is immensely powerful, particularly when there’s a scarcity of it being held every four years.
Roger Bennett: So what Tariq’s saying is that football’s popularity essentially allows the head of FIFA to act like, well, Specter in the Bond movies, or maybe even worse. I hate to say this Tommy, Facebook.
Tommy Vietor: Oh, no. Does Sepp Blatter do karate like Mark Zuckerberg does and then tweet it out?
Roger Bennett: I don’t think anyone’s does karate like Mark Zuckerberg does. [laughter] It’s the way of the empty fist. But whatever all these organizations, FIFA, more than any, operated in an ether, thats above, even heads of state.
Tariq Panja: If you see the way the FIFA entourage rolls and you see the genuflecting from leaders of nations, you kind of have to rub your eyes and say, is this really happening? You know, for example, a FIFA jet plane will land on an airstrip in a capital city somewhere. The red carpet will be rolled out. Perhaps the leader of the country will be there on the tarmac to meet the FIFA president. Hang on a minute. This is the guy from football. If people keep treating you like that, you will end up believing that this is exactly how you’re supposed to be treated. I remember talking to a FIFA executive committee member and he said, Do you know what? I’ll be honest with you, it would be very hard to give this up. But really, there is no work when you sit on the FIFA council. You are there to be photographed next to people, to be seen in the royal box, in stadiums, and to be in these photographs or videos that the government wants to project to its people. In some countries, having FIFA in your country meant something that you could project as your own power as a national leader to your people. And isn’t that something?
Roger Bennett: And as Americans we don’t have to look too far to glimpse exactly what that self-important FIFA administrator looked like, Tommy, its time to get personal? Are you a cat guy?
Tommy Vietor: Thank you for asking. I mean, I had several cats growing up. My wife actually wants to get a cat. We don’t have one currently. I don’t dislike them. Is that too long of an answer? I don’t know anymore.
Roger Bennett: We’ll save that for a podcast we are working on for 2023. Veto of felines today, [laugh] its time for the next tale, which is that of an American called Chuck Blazer.
Tommy Vietor: That’s a great name.
Roger Bennett: You don’t even need a passport. You’re clearly from the United States, right. I mean, only the United States could give us, its not even a fictional character, although he sounds like one, this is a real bloke. Chuck Blazer, who thanks to FIFA and CONCACAF. I know that’s a mouthful, but that’s FIFA’s collection of North American, Central American and Caribbean Federations that it crushes together into that beautiful sound of like crushed nuts. CONCACAF [laugh] that had climbed into the rarefied air where one can keep in midtown, the New York City apartment solely for his pet cats, you know. I’ll let Tariq pick it up from here.
Tariq Panja: You only need to see him once and you’ll never forget him. That was Chuck Blazer, both large in terms of his personality, but also particularly in terms of his look. If he wasn’t working at CONCACAF as its secretary general, it his kind of chief marketer, he would be on perennial Santa Claus duty. You just got to put him in a red suit and he would be a giant bushy beard bear of a man. Chuck Blazer became known as Mr. 10% because every contract, broadcast or marketing contract, 10%, at least 10% of it would find its way to Chuck Blazer in payment, but also in kind. There were cars, there were homes in the Bahamas. There were these two apartments at Trump Tower where Chuck Blazer lived.
Roger Bennett: One for him and one for?
Tariq Panja: One for him and one for his cats, famously.
Roger Bennett: [laugh] Apartments for cats. Tommy, when I told you FIFA’s tale was one of sordid corruption, I was not crapping you.
Tommy Vietor: You were not.
Roger Bennett: And so now we have a picture of the type of organization we’re dealing with as we head back to that voting for which countries would host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, the ones we played at the very top of the show. Dateline early December 2010. Let’s go back to Zurich, Switzerland.
Tariq Panja: British Prime Minister David Cameron, David Beckham, former President Bill Clinton of the U.S. and others arrive in Zurich to try and get these last minute votes. There was these last presentations. So this is what you pay huge money to, these fancy consultants for Australia hired Nicole Kidman, the U.S. bringing Morgan Freeman.
Roger Bennett: Tommy can I ask you one favor?
Tommy Vietor: Please.
Roger Bennett: All I’m asking you is, can you just remember that the U.S. even activated Morgan bloody Freeman? We’re going to return to Old Red for The Shawshank Redemption later in this pod. But back to Tariq.
Tariq Panja: None of it really mattered anyway. Big show, videos, and the last kind of pull on your heartstrings. This is why we deserve the World Cup for this process. Each bid had to provide a bid book, which is essentially a detailed breakdown of how if you give my country the World Cup, this is what it would look like. Everything from financial guarantees, hotel arrangements, security, all the elements that goes into putting together the most popular event on the planet. Now, of the 22 people who eventually voted, just one requested to read these bid books. And that speaks volumes to, I guess, the nature of who these people are and what their driving motivations were for when it came to this, because they couldn’t care about the detail. You had 22 members, not 24 ExCo members, because two of the members had earlier been caught trying to sell their votes to undercover reporters from the Sunday Times newspaper in the UK.
Roger Bennett: Oh, okay. We’re talking about the FIFA executive committee. They’ve since rebranded themselves. They call themselves now the FIFA Council. But it’s still the 24 votes of these men. And in 2010, they were all men who ultimately decide which country would host the World Cup and got is it ever a motley crew.
Tariq Panja: There was all of this vote trading, backroom dealing that again was against the regulations at the time. But then you got to think, whose rules are they and who is enforcing the rules? It’s FIFA enforcing FIFA’s rules. We’d heard this rumor about Qatar. But you think really? Don’t forget, this is going to be June and July, the heart of the summer. Yes, they’re absolutely loaded, but it is the most ill thought of ill conceived location. But, you know, for the 22 FIFA members, it turns out a lot of that didn’t matter a jot, Sepp Blatter opens up the envelope and he mentions Qatar. [applause sound] Cue delirious celebration of one pocket and perhaps stunned silence everywhere else.
Roger Bennett: What was your emotional reaction?
Tariq Panja: Qatar being as it was so insane, just took their breath away and took the focus away. If I’m honest, at that moment in time and in your career, there’s pieces of information, events, moments that do take the breath away that are stunning. Qatar getting the World Cup ten years ago. I’ll never forget that moment at all.
Roger Bennett: And there you have it, a journalist for The New York Times, no less, with decades of experience, a gent who’s seen it all or thought he had a gent who’s covered all events all over the world, pointing to this moment 12 years ago as one they’ll never forget. I mean, believe me, he feels like he’s seen it all. But the way that he’s able to paint this picture proves a way that this second is singed in his memory. And for those of you who are interested in the mind boggling sums of money that are pouring into football, and some of you actually may be thinking, hmm, a career in football sounds bloody good to me as a result of listening [laugh] to this podcast, I’d encourage both sets of you human beings to read Tariq’s book, Football’s Secret Trade How the Player Transfer Market Was Infiltrated.
Tommy Vietor: Now, Rog, it turns out that Tariq is not the only one who had these layers upon layers of corruption seared into his memory.
Matt Miller: I am Matt Miller and I was the head of the Office of Public Affairs at the Department of Justice, which is a fancy title for being the lead spokesman.
Roger Bennett: Tommy! Busting out the big guns.
Tommy Vietor: The big guns, indeed. I know, Matt, from my years in politics and from the Obama administration. But what made me so excited to talk with him for this show is the fact that Matt was part of the delegation that the United States sent to make that last minute plea to FIFA’s executive committee in Zurich in 2010. President Biden was actually supposed to go then Vice President Biden. But because of a last minute switch, I think there was a funeral he had to attend the U.S. Senate, then Attorney General Eric Holder. And so Matt went along with him.
Matt Miller: I was incredibly excited because I just watched the South African World Cup in the summer and the incredible World Cup had gotten really into it had just that fall started to follow the Premier League. So I was incredibly excited to go see this bid for two future World Cups. I didn’t know much about FIFA, but I thought, you know, we’re taking Morgan Freeman on the plane with us. Bill Clinton’s going to be there. We’ll check out this major international sports headquarters. It’s got to be fun.
Roger Bennett: Morgan Freeman. Oh, we got Freeman at the tip of the U.S. charm offensive spear. We can’t mess with Sergeant Major John Rawlins helping us, Thomas. I promise we come back to him.
Tommy Vietor: When you’re on a plane with Morgan Freeman, do you ask him to, like, record your voicemail message and stuff? Like, what do you do with Morgan Freeman?
Matt Miller: It’s funny you it’s funny you say that. That is exactly what I planned to do. I started the trip thinking by the end of this trip, I’m going to get Morgan Freeman to record my voicemail message for me. And he was so standoffish and so uninterested in talking to any of us lowly staffers. And I can’t blame him. [laugh] I can’t blame him for it that I never got up the courage to do it. I was pretty sure he would’ve said no.
Roger Bennett: You know, I’m pretty sure Morgan was just saving all these energy for when they landed so we could give his all when he got in front of Blatter. [laughter]
Tommy Vietor: Look, you know, from the scene that just got painted about when they hit the ground, it doesn’t quite sound like that’s what happened Rog, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to that.
Matt Miller: We got in the night before the bid got in late. We’d flown during that during the day. And so started the day of the bid with a meeting with Sunil Gulati and his teams. Sunil was the head of U.S. Soccer and was running the bid and he kind of gave us the lay of the land of all the countries that were bidding, how Qatar was going after members, both kind of the over the table stuff and the under table stuff that they were up to. And he was really confident about the bid you had to get. You know, there were 22 members of I think it’s called the ExCom, the committee that voted. And so you had to get a majority of them. And Sunil thought they had locked up six or seven votes, definite yes votes for the United States. And then he thought they had another I think it was eight or nine that were probably votes or votes that were going to be with either Japan or Australia in the first round. But we’re definitely going to come our way in the second round. And I remember sitting there listening to that and we walked out of the meeting and I said to Holder, this sounds like somebody who’s never counted votes before. [laughter] I’ve spent my whole career in politics. If you have six definite votes and eight or nine leanings, you have six votes. [laughter] You don’t have you don’t have 12 or 13 or 14, and you’re nowhere near getting them. You only have a vote if it’s completely locked up. So that seemed to me a bit naive, but we meet with Blatter right before we make the U.S. presentation and so we go into this room and in the room are Blatter, Bill Clinton, Eric Holder, Morgan Freeman and Landon Donovan and me. [laughter] So and so so Morgan Freeman and Blatter and Holder and Clinton start talking to each other and they’re standing, talking and sharing stories. And I remember Clinton and Freeman talking about playing golf with Jack Nicholson and Landon Donovan and I we kind of shrink back against the wall. And it was one of those moments where you feel like a child watching the grown men speak. And Landon and I well, it was almost like we were equals, right? International soccer star on the one hand, nobody staffer for the United States government on the other. But in that room we were both nobody’s. So that happens. We have this talk with Blatter and he’s as pompous and self-important as you would expect. But at FIFA, the weird thing was it was like he was the emperor in his environment there. I mean, you had the United States president, former United States president there, the sitting attorney general, who he ought to have been worried about impressing. [laughter] It turn, it turns out, and Blatter was clear, at least in his own bearing, that he was the most important person in the room. And then we go in. There’s a big auditorium where we make the presentation that was a combination of Sunil talking. And Landon gave a very short speech, played video of his goal against Algeria that had, of course, caused the U.S. to to advance in the 2010 World Cup. And it ended with a Bill Clinton speech. Morgan Freeman talked, he had narrated the video and he talked. And it was like this presentation mattered at all anyway. But, you know, Morgan Freeman gets up and he was there clearly to cash a check.
[clip of Morgan Freeman]: If you haven’t lived in the United States. You haven’t seen just how wide and deep American’s love of football really is. You’d be surprised. Maybe even shocked. I’m sorry, I missed a page.
Matt Miller: Not bringing his A-game necessarily.
Roger Bennett: Essentially, the big takeaway I’m getting from this whole episode Tommy is that Morgan Freeman was really mailing it in. Did he not know that I was counting? We were all counted on the World Cup coming to the United States in 2022, and so much rested on these beautiful shoulders.
Tommy Vietor: Starting to view his entire oeuvre in a whole new light. [laughter] That’s a French word for people at home, I think. But it turns out that this might not have been entirely Morgan Freeman’s fault.
Matt Miller: The night after the presentations, before the vote. They’re all staying at the Baur au Lac Hotel, this beautiful luxury hotel right on the lake in Zurich. And so each of the bidding nations has a suite up on one of the top floors, and the delegates all hung out in the lobby bar. And so what would happen is every country had its dignitaries in a suite upstairs, and one by one, you would send someone down to grab, you know, let’s say the representative of pick a country and bring them upstairs and lobby them for your vote. So we had Holder and President Clinton and Freeman was there for a little while upstairs and you would go get a member and bring them up and talk, spend half an hour with them, trying to convince them why we had the best bid. And it was pretty clear. So I was upstairs in the suite for a little bit, but mostly down in the bar watching what was happening. It was absolutely clear that the Qataris and likely the Russians too, were basically just buying votes. People would come up to our meeting and listen to the talk and then go, oh, that’s a great presentation. And then they would go to the other one and they would walk out, and I don’t think they were handing cash over in the rooms, but it was quite obvious that they were making promises and wheeling and dealing and grabbing votes, and it was that out in the open for everyone to see. And it was the most corrupt thing I’ve ever seen in my career. And I spent a couple of years working in New Jersey politics.
Roger Bennett: Oh, as I believe they say in New Jersey. Tommy oh, Madonna, that is an incredible statement that really perfectly truncates FIFA’s idea.
Tommy Vietor: Yeah. Just to put it home, here’s someone who worked at the Department of Justice during one of the largest single day operations in history against the Mafia called the awarding of the World Cup the most corrupt thing he’s ever seen.
Roger Bennett: Good hearing you say that as a football person. Bizarrely, I certainly feel like slightly proud—
Tommy Vietor: It’s a real superlative, you know, the most.
Roger Bennett: For all the shock of Russia and, of course, Qatar. It’s remarkable to know how little anyone had heard or even thought about it as a possibility before these envelopes were opened. And to me, it all comes back to something we spoke about in the first episode of this podcast series. Something that’s going to be a theme now throughout that is cognitive dissonance, because at the moment a ball is kicked bit like Pavlov’s dog. We football fans just veer away from all that corruption and perversion. Brazen as it may be, we know it’s there. It’s there in the light of day. But we turn away and we just marvel at the spectacle. The 22 players running around before our eyes. And this this is the great conundrum, because on the one hand, modern sport and it’s not just football. You could put the Olympics in the very same category. It’s just run by organizations whose basic capacity for ethical behavior has repeatedly been found out and demonstrated itself to be utterly appalling. But on the other hand, major sporting occasions think of its drama and color and joy to hundreds of millions of people from every single section of society all across the world, and instantly just anesthetize us to the darkness.
[sportscaster]: Cross at Dempsey’s tonight again. But, Donovan, is gone. Oh, can you believe this? Go, go, USA. Certainly through. Oh, it’s incredible. You cannot write a script like this.
Tommy Vietor: Yeah. No, look, I mean, Rog, I feel this every single Sunday when I watch the NFL. You know, when the game starts, when the whistle blows. I stop thinking about concussions. I stop thinking about the way they’ve mishandled controversies. I stop thinking about how much money Roger Goodell is paid for some reason. And I just, you know, get excited about the games.
Roger Bennett: Oh, may this year be the best year.
Tommy Vietor: You’re looking good. You want a game.
Roger Bennett: [laughter] We’ve won a big boy game? Oh, for the next episode, we are going to delve into all of this from Qatar’s perspective, why a tiny state in a friction filled neighborhood would even want this World Cup that is so wholly unprepared for what did they stand to gain from having every single pair of eyes in the world suddenly trained on them?
Tommy Vietor: We’ll explain how sports washing really works and how governments try to whitewash their reputations by clinging to the games we love.
Unidentified Speaker: Sport, I think is it’s seductive. It’s engaging, but it also. Helps to communicate an image, a set of values or a reputation that those that seek to support or shall those that seek to mislead in some way, they can easily buy into it.
Tommy Vietor: We’ll discuss the machinations involved in the incredible lengths countries will go to to bring events like the World Cup to their shores. Until next time, Roger, I’m going to I don’t know. Watch The Shawshank Redemption on a loop and, you know, get busy living or get busy. Diane, I don’t know what else I’m going to do.
Roger Bennett: Oh, I still can’t believe a freeman voicemail wasn’t enough to get Blatter to bring the World Cup to the USA. If that wasn’t, what will?
Tommy Vietor: He probably just wanted Bill Clinton out of his office. [laughter]