The Fifa president Sepp Blatter made the startling disclosure yesterday that he could not rule out a rerun of the voting for the right to host the 2022 World Cup finals which was controversially won by the tiny Arab emirate of Qatar in December.
Blatter, who is seeking re-election next month for a fourth term, said that a Fifa inquiry into claims made by The Sunday Times that there was corruption in the vote could lead to the Fifa executive committee (ExCo) voting again. It would represent the biggest U-turn in the governing body's history.
While Blatter was not thought to have cast his own vote for Qatar, he knows that any move to go back on the decision would cause huge ructions within world football. While the 75-year-old did not say what he thought the likely outcome of Fifa's investigation would be, he refused to put any limit on the measures they could take if they uncovered wrongdoing.
In an interview with the Press Association, Blatter said that the notion that the 2022 vote would be reheld was "alarming" but conceded it was one that had a groundswell of popular support and was "circulating around the world". He said: "But don't ask me now yes or no, let us go step by step. It's like we are in an ordinary court and in an ordinary court we cannot ask: 'If, if, if'."
Yesterday the Football Association announced it would be abstaining in the Fifa presidency vote on 1 June, which pits Blatter against the Qatari president of the Asian football confederation Mohamed Bin Hammam. The decision was made at an FA board meeting yesterday although it was not passed unanimously. The key opposition was thought to have come from Premier League chairman Dave Richards.
Unfortunately for the FA, its decision to place itself firmly outside the camps of the two power-brokers of world football was undermined by its unwillingness to back its actions up with a detailed condemnation of either candidate. Instead, the FA simply referred to a "well-reported range of issues" as its reasons for abstaining.
In private, the FA felt that it could not be more explicit until its own inquiry – headed by James Dingemans QC – into the explosive revelations of Fifa corruption in the 2018 World Cup bid process by former chairman Lord Triesman, reports a week today.
In response, Blatter described the FA chairman David Bernstein's announcement that the FA was abstaining as "strange". Refusing to accept that an abstention was a political gesture, Blatter said: "It is a bit strange when the No 1 association in the world – which is the FA – have two candidates to choose from and they cannot make a decision which one they support. It's strange."
The key corruption allegations that could trigger a rerun of the 2022 vote were uncovered by The Sunday Times which alleged to a Commons select committee investigation into football governance that ExCo members Issa Hayatou and Jacques Anouma took bribes of $1.5m each to vote for Qatar.
Taking the World Cup from Qatar would be a huge blow to the prestige of Fifa which has been widely criticised for its decision to award the biggest sports event in the world to a country of 1.6 million people with little football culture and temperatures of around 50C in June and July. Qatar spent by far and away the most on its bid, committing £27m on communications alone in one year. To put that in perspective, the next biggest budget in the 2022 race was Australia who spent £28m in total.
It is Bin Hammam's involvement with the Qatar 2022 World Cup campaign that means the FA does not regard him as a suitable alternative to Blatter. If The Sunday Times allegations are proved right then he will be implicated.
Blatter revealed yesterday that Fifa had agreed with The Sunday Times that the newspaper's whistle-blower, who disclosed the alleged bribes paid to the two ExCo members, would come to Zurich to give evidence in person to Fifa's own investigation. Lord Triesman made allegations against a further four ExCo members – Trinidad's Jack Warner, Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay, Brazil's Ricardo Teixeira and Worawi Makudi of Thailand – who he accused of soliciting bribes and favours from the England 2018 World Cup bid.
There was trouble closer to home for the FA yesterday when the results of a staff survey heavily criticising the organisation's management were leaked. In it, FA staff expressed a lack of faith in senior management, including the general secretary Alex Horne who has had to pick up the pieces after the resignation of two FA chairmen and one chief executive in the space of nine months last year.
FA sources expressed surprise yesterday that the survey had not found itself into the public sphere earlier given that it had been readily available on the intranet of the notoriously leaky organisation for months. The FA says that it has already had extensive meetings to try to put the problem right and that it will be judged on its performance in staging the FA Cup final last Saturday, the Champions League final in eight days' time and the England Euro 2012 qualifier against Switzerland on 4 June.