Qatar faced fresh calls to be stripped of the 2022 World Cup after leaked documents showed it ran a secret “black ops” campaign to sabotage rivals competing to host the tournament.
Emails from a whistleblower showed that the Qatari bid team hired an international public relations firm and former CIA agents to produce fake propaganda about the rival campaigns of the United States and Australia.
The emails, seen by The Sunday Times newspaper, suggested that the effort included attempts to use bloggers, journalists and experts to run negative stories about their rivals.
The campaign also included the recruitment of a group of US physical education teachers to try to persuade the US Congress that the money would be better spent on grassroots funding of sport.
The efforts would appear to be a clear breach of the rules of football’s world governing body not to comment in an any way about a rival nation.
But in a statement, Fifa said that a previous “thorough investigation” had been carried out by US lawyer Michael Garcia into corruption claims surrounding the 2022 bid.
That report cleared Qatar of wrongdoing but the newspaper said that Mr Garcia was not thought to have seen the latest documents which appear to implicate the bid committee. One leaked email was sent to Qatar’s deputy bid leader Ali Al Thawadi and mentioned efforts to “poison” rival bids.
The email from a senior executive at the New York offices of Brown Lloyd Jones (BLJ) said: “Ali ... we have a resolution going before the US Congress that would call for ‘zero support’ for US world Cup bid, so long as the US is in economic trouble and not funding other health and sports priorities ... We need to handle this very delicately, but it could poison the US bid.”
Another email sent by BLJ to Ahmed Nimeh, a senior adviser to the Qatar bid, said: "For the past 4 months, we have undertaken an extensive campaign to undermine the 2018/2022 candidacies of competitor countries."
Qatar beat the US and Australia in a double vote that saw Russia and Qatar given the rights to host the 2018 and 2022 tournaments.
The US – which has led successful judicial investigations into Fifa corruption - in June this year won the right to host the first 48-team tournament in 2026 along with Canada and Mexico.
Lord Triesman, a former chairman of the English Football Association, told The Sunday Times that “If Qatar is shown to have broken the Fifa rules, then they can’t hold onto the World Cup.”
Anwar Gargash, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, wrote on Twitter that the methods reportedly employed by Qatar were not surprising “as we see them on a daily basis in the management of Qatar’s affairs and policies”.
The whistleblower, said to have worked with the Qatar bid, has also given evidence to a senior British politician.
“The ultimate sanction for breaking the rules would be the loss of the right to host the tournament,” said Damian Collins, the chairman of the digital, culture, media and sport parliamentary committee with a call to Fifa to launch a new investigation.
The revelations included claims that middlemen acting for Qatar paid a respected US academic $9,000 (Dh33,058) to write a report critical of the economic effects of a US-hosted World Cup, according to the newspaper.
The report – which did not declare the payment – concluded that “US taxpayers are better off saying no to an expensive and secretive World Cup bid.”
The author, Prof Dennis Coates, was approached by a BLJ executive in 2010 who claimed to represent an “informal organisation of concerned taxpayers”, according to the newspaper. Another academic rejected an offer to write a similar paper criticising Australia.
The website of BLJ, now called BLJ Worldwide, says that it has headquarters in New York, London and Doha, and claims the company is expert in “reputation management”.
"Building and maintaining a positive reputation and image are powerful strategic tools and effective insurance policies should your organisation be thrust into the forum of public opinion,” it says.
Nobody answered the phone at its New York office on Sunday. The company did not respond to questions from The Sunday Times.
The report is just the latest based on damaging leaks from Qatar’s successful campaign. It followed other revelations about the abuse of construction workers’ rights with hundreds dying during the building of the venues.
In a statement, the Qatari authority overseeing the 2022 World Cup preparations said it rejected all of the allegations. “We have been thoroughly investigated and have been forthcoming with all information related to our bid, including the official investigation led by US attorney Michael Garcia,” the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy said.
Fifa said an investigation into the circumstances of the bid had already been carried out and no wrongdoing was found. It did not respond to the National about whether the Garcia inquiry had seen any of the documents cited by the Sunday Times.