The Men Who Sold the World Cup (2021)

Review: ‘The Men Who Sold the World Cup’ (2021)

The Men Who Sold the World Cup was produced and directed by Daniel DiMauro and Morgan Pehme, two fellows who have built their careers with documentaries that explain corruption and evil-doing in a very accessible and entertaining way. This docuseries shows how corruption is cultivated and how difficult it is to capture the bad guys at the top of an organized crime hierarchy like FIFA.

I have reviewed Fifa Uncovered (2022) and the Garcia Report, but the collection of interviews and evidence in this short series is so extensive that I am summarizing all of its main points. A little of the information conflicts with Fifa Uncovered, but for me The Men Who Sold the World Cup has slightly more credibility. Their presentation is well bolstered by their interviews with investigators Christopher Steele and Mike Gaeta, and a Sepp Blatter who appears to miss the limelight.

In 2014, Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert of the Sunday Times were approached by someone who had access to a vast trove of documents that would blow the lid off the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar. The source would only allow them to review the docs on sequestered computers outside of London. All their activity was monitored via camera and key stroke, and they weren’t allowed to take any material with them. They worked in this “bunker” for 3 months and labored to finish their investigative report before the WC 2014 kicked off in Brazil. The Times published their findings on Jun-1-2014.

Episode 1: “The Heist”

In the 1st episode, titled “The Heist”, the documentary explains the history of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, and how FIFA  works. FIFA has 211 member nations (national federations) and 6 continental confederations. Many federations are in tiny countries that supply votes, in alignment with confederation blocks, in exchange for promised development funding. Blake describes FIFA President Sepp Blatter as a rapacious power broker. Under Blatter and his predecessor Joao Havelange, FIFA payoffs became accepted as standard business practice — rewards for election loyalty. Says Guido Tognoni, former FIFA media officer:

“Blatter and Havelange … built their power on bribery. And they observed the corruption growing and growing and growing. And they never intervened against it. They did not only ignore, they even cultivated it.”

Guido Tognoni, former FIFA media officer

Episode 1 spins mostly around Sepp Blatter and his early relationship with Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam.  Bin Hammam allegedly bankrolled Blatter’s 1998 campaign with cash envelopes to voters. This enabled Blatter to usurp his predecessor Havelange and become FIFA president. Says Guido Tognoni:

“Blatter didn’t pay bribes himself. So when he says “I didn’t pay, I didn’t bribe anybody.” Then literally, he’s right. But money was given. This is the fact.”

Guido Tognoni, former FIFA media officer

The Qatari bribe and sportswashing machine

Why would bin Hammam bankroll Sepp? What was his motivation? The filmmakers show how bin Hammam came to prominence in Qatar and FIFA. He is a self-made billionaire through his Doha construction company, KEMCO. In the 1970s in his twenties, he managed a local football club and got the attention of the then crown prince of Qatar, who subsequently became Emir.

Bin Hammam joined the Emir’s advisory council and became a Qatari elite. However, his nickname was “the Slave” because of his devotion to the royal family and as a reference to his African ancestry. He would do anything for the family and for QIA, the Qatar Investment Authority, which is the sovereign wealth fund owned by the Qatari royal family. Bin Hammam became the tool to manage Qatari’s goals for sport and increase Qatari prominence through sportswashing. It’s the standard playbook for authoritarian governments.

Once the Qataris were in with Sepp, the next step was to do something ground-breaking, and this became the bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

But what does it take to win the bid? Although there are 211 member nations, back in 2010 the decision rested solely with the 24-member FIFA Executive Committee (ExCo). At that time, Jonathan Calvert went undercover for the Sunday Times and exposed the corruption in the bidding process for WC 2018 and WC 2022. He set up a sting and recorded interviews with FIFA execs explaining what it would take for the USA to win WC 2022 hosting over Qatari. The recordings show the executives are all quite straight forward and explain the necessity for bribes totaling $10-12M and paid directly to FIFA members. It’s just an expected part of business.

After the Sunday Times’ expose broke on Oct-17-2010, FIFA suspended 2 ExCo members so that they could not vote. Regardless, Qatar won the bid 6 weeks later. Sepp insists that

“FIFA is not corrupt. People in FIFA, they’re corrupt.”

Sepp Blatter, former FIFA president

It’s like the old argument that guns don’t kill people, people kill people — so don’t bother with gun control! Blatter claims he is above suspicion, he didn’t take any bribes, and both Guido and Blatter say that Blatter wanted WC 2022 to go to the USA, not Qatar.

The Qatari bid

Bin Hammam was not officially part of the bid team, but they had offices in the KEMCO building. The  team was run by Hassan Al-Thawadi and its Chairman Sheikh Mohammed. Bin Hammam travelled the world buying votes for the Qatari bid. After he met with federation officials, there would be activities in the KEMCO accounts directing money to the officials he had met with. This allowed Qatar to break the rules with bribes that did not come directly from the bid team.

Phaedra Al-Majid was a staffer on the bid team and witnessed bribe discussions between Hassan Al-Thawadi  and Issa Hayatou, Amos Adamu, and Amadou Diallo. After the Sunday Times exposé, Phaedra came forward with her allegations of bribes. She wanted to be anonymous, but Blatter announced the date and time when she was coming to testify to FIFA. Phaedra’s accounts were hacked and she received threatening emails about her children. So even though the Times provided her a lawyer, she recanted everything. She says she did what she had to do as a mother.

Blatter created an anti-corruption committee to look at the bid process. Then he announced that the ExCo could ostensibly change the site of the WC 2022. To prevent such a change, Bin Hammam decided to run for FIFA Prez in order to protect the bid award. But shortly before the May-2011 election, Bin Hammam withdrew from the race. Heidi Blake said they received a phone call from someone inside FIFA who said Bin Hammam went to FIFA HQ to meet with Blatter, and they agreed that Bin Hammam would withdraw from the race if Blatter would protect the Qatari bid result. Sepp says that this never happened. But his hand is shaking heavily as he denies it.

In 2011, Sepp discounted the Times exposé as racism. FIFA did not reconsider the Qatar’s hosting. Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake felt they had failed. They didn’t know the FBI was also working on the case.

Bringing in the spies

It turns out that the England WC 2018 bid team had their own spy network. Christopher Steele is a former British Intelligence Officer who headed the Russia Desk for MI6.  He came to fame because of his Trump-Russia dossier, which showed that Russia had collaborated with Trump’s campaign in the 2016 election.  As a long time observer of Russia, Steele says:

“Modern Russia’s default mode is to engage in corruption and underhand dealings and breaking the rules. And it’s the only way they really achieve very much.”

Christopher Steele, former MI6

Steele had intelligence that Qatar and Russia were working together, which would mean a vote swap. He also discusses other evidence of corruption, such as an ExCo member who had received a painting from the Russian Hermitage. Steele and Blake say the vote trade wrapped around a bi-lateral oil deal, where Qataris would help Russia develop its oil extraction capabilities in the Yamal peninsula. Steele notes that hosting the world cup is also a sportswashing opportunity for an authoritarian government.

Among other back door dealings, we learn that UEFA Prez Michel Platini was pressured by French President Sarkozy so that the Qataris would bail out PSG and buy 50 planes from Airbus. Sepp says that Platini called him 1 week before the world cup vote with the news that Sarkozy was making him change his vote. These revelations first surfaced in 2013 and 2015.

Both are examples of how huge international trade deals were made in exchange for WC hosting.

Episode 2 “The Takedown”

Episode 2 is about the FBI’s breaking open the case. According to former British MI6 officer Christopher Steele, it all began after he had the intel about Qatar and Russia collusion. He felt the FBI was the only group with enough extra-territorial wherewithal to do something with the intel. He identified potential targets for the FBI, which included Chuck Blazer.

This is where I scratched my head, because according to FIFA Uncovered, bringing in the FBI started from an IRS agent who was also a Liverpool fan. But let’s continue with this episode.

Mike Gaeta, a former FBI Special Agent, was primarily focused on organized crime in NYC. Although organized crime is commonly thought of as the Mafia and other gang activity, Gaeta gives a simple definition:

“Organized crime… is a group of people who are associated who are engaged in a pattern of criminal activity over time.”

Mike Gaeta, former FBI

In this case, Sepp Blatter is the head of the criminal hierarchy and the Godfather. However, Sepp charmingly describes himself not as a Godfather, but as the architect of football. And certainly, he misses his presidency, as he bemoans, “I had a wonderful life in FIFA”.

The Men Who Sold the World Cup - godfather Sepp
“I had a wonderful life in FIFA”
says godfather Sepp in The Men Who Sold the World Cup (2021)

Bringing in the Big Guns = the IRS

So how do you break down the organization? Gaeta, who is a thrill to listen to, explains that you need leverage to motivate people to cooperate.

“Until you have somebody involved in the conspiracy, explaining to you what is going on, the case will not break open.”

Mike Gaeta, former FBI

Chuck Blazer became the lever and fulcrum for the FBI. Gaeta says the individuals he interviews are always more concerned about the IRS agent who accompanies him. In this case, it is Aimee Schabiblion, a former IRS criminal investigation special agent. She characterizes the IRS agents as accountants with guns, who only do criminal investigations related to tax evasion or fraud. Blazer had not filed taxes for 14 years and had no real estate in his name. He was “A significant criminal tax case”.

Much of these facts have been covered in other films. Mary Lynn Blanks was Blazer’s girlfriend for the 10 years up until the investigation. She played a large part in the film FIFA Family. What was new here to me were her claims of domestic abuse such as beatings and being made to stand in a closet to avoid additional beatings. She also says she got him to  share his amazing life through his blog: Travels with Chuck Blazer and his Friends.

One of the best lines in the series is when, after his initial contact by the FBI and IRS, Chuck confesses to Mary Lynn:

  • Chuck: “They got me. I’m looking at 75 to 100 years in jail.”
  • Mary Lynn: “For income tax?”
  • Chuck: “I’m just a fat crook from Queens.”

Interviews with Mary Lynn and Sunil Gulati (former USSoccer President) try to convey why Chuck Blazer was able to live such a high life without suspicion by those closest to him. They both say that Blazer claimed to be successfully playing the stock market and derivatives. But to me, Sunil’s statements are difficult to accept, given that he is an Economics professor at Columbia University.

“Chuck traded derivatives every day. That’s a pretty easy way to make or lose a lot of money. Should we have asked more questions? The answer is yes, for sure. But was there any knowledge that there was illicit or illegal activity? The answer is no. I mean, the whole setup was meant to conceal.”

Sunil Gulati, former USSoccer president

Sunil says hundreds of millions of dollars were siphoned off from Concacaf — and he never had a suspicion? I’m sure he did at the time, but just accepted it. As the film points out, corruption in FIFA is institutionalized. For FIFA, it is just part of their process and is the cost of doing business.

The Sting

The rest of the episode explains how corruption works in FIFA, how they wiretapped Blazer, and then went on to indict 42 people for racketeering, money laundering, and fraud.  On May 7, 2015, the FBI went to Zurich and arrested FIFA executives, attempting to take down the hierarchy in one shot at the Baur au Lac hotel. Reporter Sam Borden recounts how he went to the hotel lobby at 6:00 AM, snuck up a staircase, and witnessed some of the arrests.

Another new fact for me was Mary Lynn’s confession that she leaked the FBI Chuck Blazer investigation to the NY Daily News. This became their headline story on Sunday Nov-2-2014, alternatively titled: “Rotten: Secret Life of Soccer’s Mr Big“. At that point it had been a 4 year investigation, so the FBI knew it was running out of time to execute a mass arrest where the perpetrators were all meeting in one place.

I found this confounding as well. I am surprised that the FIFA ExCo all showed up in Switzerland even though they should have known from the NY Daily News story that Blazer was cooperating with the FBI. Perhaps the ExCo members believed they were untouchable in Switzerland.

I apologize for sort of skipping over the details of the arrests, as I feel I’ve written about FIFA’s corruption too many times. I really encourage everyone interested in this topic to watch this series. Or else, read my other reviews and notes under the tag #corruption.

In Conclusion

If this 2-episode docuseries had come out in 2014, maybe WC 2018 and WC 2022 would have been played elsewhere. Maybe Sepp Blatter would have been forced out of FIFA much sooner. But of course, it takes years to gather all the evidence and figure out the stories. And time has to pass before people will tell you, in hindsight and free of future arrest, what really happened.

Sepp Blatter was subsequently re-elected as President, but Guido Tognoni says Sepp was then pushed to resign by people inside FIFA. Gianni Infantino was elected and is now on his 7th year of corruption and feeding at the trough of Middle East influence. When FIFA has so much undeserved wealth, is it ever possible for it to become an honest and truly altruistic organization?

9 Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 9


For consistency and searchability, I have used the spelling of several Arabic names as were used in wikipedia and my prior reviews: