Photo Gallery: Dinner in Oslo

Foto: Steffen Schmidt/ dpa

World Cup 2022 Confusion Surrounds Blatter Comments on Qatar

Sources allege that FIFA President Joseph Blatter, at a dinner in Oslo, questioned whether Qatar would ultimately host the 2022 World Cup as planned. But did he?

The Monday just over four weeks ago felt like exactly the kind of day for which Joseph Blatter was named head of football's global governing body. Standing at the side of the director of the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, he took in an exhibition about the history of the illustrious award before holding a press conference in the foundation's stately headquarters. He spent minutes talking about how soccer can help promote peace.

At a quarter to nine that evening, he was scheduled to attend an international friendly at Ullevaal Stadium as guest of honor. But before making his way to the event, he made another stop at an Oslo hotel where the Football Association of Norway (NFF) was hosting a dinner for him.

It was a modest number of people. Sitting with Blatter were his communications chief, Walter De Gregorio, and a few FIFA employees, NFF President Yngve Hallén and a handful of other Norwegian football officials.

At first, the meal went just as hundreds of previous dinners attended by Blatter around the world had gone. There was small talk, a discussion about the World Cup in Brazil and the "Handshake for Peace" image campaign that FIFA is sponsoring together with the Nobel Peace Center.

Then the issue of Qatar came up. One of the Norwegian guests wanted to know how things stood with preparations for the 2022 World Cup in the desert emirate.

The question was meant sincerely -- which made Blatter's unexpected answer even more bewildering. That, at least, is how a dinner participant portrayed the incident to SPIEGEL.

The source claims Blatter described Arabs as "arrogant" and said they thought they "could buy anything with their money." Blatter's listeners were perplexed and discomfited.

After a time, a follow-up question was posed: Would the 2022 World Cup still even take place in Qatar?

'The World Cup Will Not Take Place in Qatar'

Blatter, the source told SPIEGEL, answered by saying that Qatar provides financing to the Islamic State terrorist militia. The source also claimed that the FIFA president stated: "The World Cup will not take place in Qatar."

People who know Joseph S. Blatter very well also know that he can quickly veer off the course his advisors and PR strategists have charted for him prior to public events. He's no fan of canned speeches and when he speaks freely, it's not uncommon for him to go off script and use punchlines that often fall flat.

Sometimes it even sounds as if he's gone a bit mad. Take the recent FIFA Congress in Sao Paolo that took place shortly before last summer's World Cup. Blatter stepped up to the dais and told attendees: "We shall wonder if one day our game is played on another planet? Why not? Then we will have not only a World Cup, we will have inter-planetary competitions."

Blatter is now 78 years old and his once sharp memory seems to be failing him with ever greater frequency. The same applies to his sense for when a provocation hits home or when it does not.

Blatter, a Swiss national, can quickly jump between English, French, Spanish and German, although he speaks none of these languages brilliantly. He comes across as a bit of a chatterbox.

But why would he allow himself to say what he did about Qatar? Does he feel that, as the most important global football figure, he is somehow unassailable? Is it out of the pure desire to provoke? Or is it based on tactical motives he has somehow thus far kept hidden?

Qatar Clouded in Controversy

The Qatar World Cup has already been the subject of considerable controversy for some time. In the almost five years since FIFA made the decision to award the tournament to the emirate, hardly a day has passed without someone, somewhere in the world expressing the suspicion that the selection process may have been marred by corruption.

There are plenty of conspiracy theories in circulation. They flourish in part because five of the 22 members of the executive committee that participated in the vote to award the tournament to Qatar are no longer in office due to allegations of corruption. The ultimate vote was 14 to 8, with the United States losing out.

Former US federal attorney Michael Garcia, the chief investigator for the FIFA ethics committee, conducted a major two-year investigation into whether Qatar or other candidates paid bribes in their efforts to land the games. His report is currently sitting on the desk of German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert who is expected to issue a ruling soon.

The chief of Qatar's World Cup organizing committee, Hassan al-Thawadi, has repeatedly insisted that the emirate's bid was clean. Even if that is confirmed, though, Qatar has already attracted so much controversy that it is likely to remain a thorn in FIFA's side for the next eight years.

Currently, associations, clubs, sponsors and TV broadcasters are haggling over the best dates for the tournament, with consideration being given to slots in January and February, April and May or November and December 2022. The wrangling has already become highly political.

The only thing clear going into these games is that the original summer dates that had been considered will be too hot. With temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), it would be too uncomfortable for players and tourists alike during the summer.

'Of Course It Was a Mistake'

When the vote on the 2022 World Cup took place in Zurich in December 2010, Blatter is said to have cast his vote against Qatar. But the FIFA president didn't go public with his opposition to holding the tournament in the Gulf country until this May. "Of course it was a mistake," Blatter told Swiss broadcaster RTS. But he has never gone as far as to suggest that Qatar might be stripped of its right to host the World Cup.

Blatter has a special relationship with the emirate. During his rise to become the global football body's president and his first re-election to the post, senior Qatari official Mohamed Bin Hammam, who was a member of the FIFA executive committee at the time, played a decisive role in helping him win. Bin Hammam arranged the occasional use of a Saudi sheikh's jet so that Blatter could criss-cross the globe. Bin Hammam is also a highly networked vote-getter who helped to ensure that Blatter obtained the support he needed from Africa and Asia in 1998 and 2002.

But friendship then turned to enmity. During the spring of 2011, only months after Qatar was awarded the World Cup, Blatter and Bin Hamman became engaged in a bizarre and dirty personal battle for the office of the FIFA presidency. In the end, Blatter won and Bin Hammam was suspended from all the global football offices he held.

Qatar's World Cup organizers ensure that relations with Blatter remain unclouded and that the FIFA president has been and remains a good friend of the country. But how true is this?

When Blatter had dinner with his small entourage and Norwegian football officials on Oct. 13, he must have been aware that he wasn't really sitting among friends. Blatter is viewed very critically by both the Norwegian football body and other soccer associations in Scandinavia.

The first tips about Blatter's alleged tirades against Qatar reached SPIEGEL only two days later in the form of information from first-hand sources. Further reporting over the ensuing two weeks backed the sources to the point that SPIEGEL ultimately asked for an informal interview with FIFA Communications Director De Gregorio, who had been at the table during the Oslo meal in question.

The interview took place in Berlin on Oct. 30. At the end of the meeting, SPIEGEL informed De Gregorio that it would ask Blatter about the allegations. A week ago Monday, the FIFA president received our letter.

A Denial from FIFA

Ultimately, De Gregorio's signature, and not that of Blatter, was underneath the response. In it, he disputes the "content of the discussion as it has been conveyed" in Oslo. He says the atmosphere at the dinner was "good, friendly and relaxed." "The issue of Qatar and the 2022 World Cup was only peripherally broached and the focus was on game dates and the emir, who had visited the FIFA president in Zurich. Sepp Blatter explained to the group in Oslo how he had congratulated the emir for the firm words he had found during an official state visit to Germany the day before. In response to the question from a journalist about whether Qatar finances the 'Islamic State,' the emir had denied this with clear words during the said visit to Germany. He had praised the emir for this in Zurich and mentioned this during the conversation in Oslo. The FIFA president did not allude to any connection between Qatar and IS."

The letter further states, "We respectfully request that you not publish your planned article because it is completely unfounded. What you are claiming is simply wrong."

Last Tuesday, upon obtaining FIFA's denial, SPIEGEL wrote to the members of the Football Association of Norway who had attended the dinner.

In a letter, the reporter asked whether the statements had been made by Blatter as reported and whether they were true or not. If yes, then did the public not have the right to learn what the FIFA president had stated at an official dinner of the Football Association of Norway in front of its officials about the World Cup in Qatar?

NFF General Secretary Kjetil Siem didn't initially respond to the letter. He first answered later by SMS that he was "hunting in the mountains," adding, "I wasn't at this lunch. I absolutely didn't hear anything like that."

In the meantime, former Norwegian national team member Turid Storhaug, a member of NFF's executive committee, wrote, "I do not want to give any further comments on this matter."

For months, members of the football world have been speculating on whether it is still possible to disqualify Qatar from hosting the World Cup. The emirate has a large number of opponents who seem obsessed with stripping it of its hosting responsibilities. They are now placing their hopes on the Garcia Report and possible evidence of bribery.

But the idea that the chief FIFA investigator has uncovered hard evidence sufficient enough to stand up in court and to invalidate all the World Cup contracts with Qatar seems pretty naive. The more likely scenario would be for the country to counter any attempt by the global football body to withdraw with claims for damages of its own. FIFA may be rich, but Qatar is richer.

'Private Atmosphere'

Last Wednesday, NFF sent an official response to the events at the dinner in Oslo. NFF President Hallén didn't comment personally. Instead Nils Fisketjønn, an association director who also participated in the dinner, indicated he was writing on behalf of his colleagues, who had been asked for a statement.

He wrote that there had been a "private atmosphere" to the dinner with Blatter in Oslo and that the "fact that the dinner was listed on the official program does not make any difference."

Fisketjønn also stated that neither the head of Norwegian football nor the other participants would "comment on what was said or expressed at the dinner table."

He ended by writing that he kindly asked to "respect the position taken."