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Why Qatar Corruption Probe Could Eclipse Soccer World Cup in Brazil

Image: Brazilian teenagers play soccer at a beach in Guaruja near Sao Paulo

Brazilian teenagers play soccer at a beach in Guaruja near Sao Paulo, Brazil, 08 June 2014. The FIFA World Cup 2014 will begin on 12 June. EPA/TOLGA BOZOGLU EPA

Days before soccer's World Cup kicks off in Brazil, commercial sponsors including Coca-Cola, Adidas, Visa and Sony have warned that corruption allegations engulfing the 2022 tournament in Qatar are damaging the reputation of the game.

The sport’s governing body FIFA was on the defensive Monday after Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper published for a second week what it says are leaked documents showing bribes were paid to secure the event for Qatar, which the Gulf emirate denies.

FIFA was already investigating the circumstances surrounding Qatar’s bid, controversial ever since it was announced four years ago.

A tiny country with no domestic soccer tradition, Qatar experiences extreme heat in the summer weeks when the tournament is held. That means the 2022 World Cup could be temporarily switched to a winter date, creating scheduling headaches for European soccer clubs and broadcasters.

“We seemed to have reached a tipping point where the big commercial sponsors have to make a public comment,” said Simon Chadwick, professor of sport business strategy at Britain’s Coventry University. “This matter seems to be becoming so serious that silence is not an option.”

The deepening crisis could not have come at a worse time for FIFA, which is making last-minute preparations in Sao Paulo for Thursday’s opening game between the host nation and Croatia.

On Sunday, four of FIFA's top-tier sponsors — among six who will pay a collective $700 million over four years toward this World Cup — spoke out about persistent corruption allegations.

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"The negative tenor of the public debate around FIFA at the moment is neither good for football nor for FIFA and its partners," said Adidas, the World Cup ball provider since 1970.

Visa called on FIFA to "maintain strong ethical standards and operate with transparency."

"Anything that detracts from the mission and ideals of the FIFA World Cup is a concern to us," Coca-Cola said in a statement, "but we are confident that FIFA is taking these allegations very seriously and is investigating them thoroughly."

Image: FIFA president Sepp Blatter
FIFA president Sepp Blatter talks at a news conference on March 21 in Zurich. MICHAEL BUHOLZER / AFP - Getty Images

A fourth, Sony, called for all claims to be "investigated appropriately." It told the Sunday Times: “We continue to expect FIFA to adhere to its principles of integrity, ethics and fair play across all aspects of its operations."

It is unlikely any of the sponsors would withdraw from the tournament — most are locked into long-term deals with hundreds of millions of dollars — but their public statements reflect growing unease at FIFA’s governance.

“I think these statements are intended to nudge FIFA in the right direction,” Chadwick said. “I don’t sense any appetite among fans for direct action.”

FIFA's marketing director Thierry Weil said the organization was already tackling the allegations. "Our sponsors have not requested anything that is not covered by the ongoing investigation by the ethics committee," he said in a statement, according to Britain’s ITV News.

The Switzerland-based organization’s 78-year-old president, Sepp Blatter, urged the world to wait for the report by its ethics committee, which is also investigating Russia’s successful 2018 bid.

The internal probe, led by former U.S. prosecutor Michael Garcia, is due in July, around a week after this year's World Cup final.

“Never ignoring media reports on ethics allegations in football,” he wrote on Twitter. “But let the Ethics Committee work.”

The Sunday Times printed new accusations on Sunday, alleging that then-Asian football chief Mohamed Bin Hammam, a Qatari, had brokered meetings between Qatari officials and governments to discuss bilateral trade deals. Qatar denies Bin Hammam was connected to its bid for the Cup. Bin Hammam has not commented.

FIFA has already banned Bin Hammam for life from soccer over accusations he paid bribes to win votes for a bid to become FIFA president. That ban was overturned but another was imposed for conflicts of interest.

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The United States, England, Australia, Japan and South Korea were the rivals who lost out to Qatar in the 2010 vote.

British prime minister David Cameron has stopped short of questioning the Qatar bid, but on Thursday commented that FIFA was “quite rightly” investigating.

U.S. broadcaster Fox, which paid an estimated $425 million for rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, was already unhappy with the possible 2022 switch to winter dates that would clash with NFL programming.

FIFA, which earned $1.4 billion in revenue last year, did not answer the telephone at its Zurich headquarters Monday, citing a local holiday.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.