The fate of the 2022 soccer World Cup could be decided within weeks after the man leading the internal investigation into how Qatar won the right to host it announced on Monday he would complete his probe next week and report back in July.
Former U.S. prosecutor Michael Garcia appears to hold the future of Qatar's multi-billion dollar World Cup bid in his hands after new allegations of bribery brought loud calls for the tournament to be moved if corruption is proved.
In a statement, he set out a timetable that would see him file a report just after this year's World Cup ends in Brazil.
Garcia, who heads an investigative committee for world soccer's governing body FIFA, was in the Middle East, where he was expected to meet Qatar soccer officials as part of the probe. Speaking to Reuters in Muscat, capital of nearby Oman, he declined further comment on the inquiry, noting that he was "restrained by ethics".
Qatar has strongly denied reports in Britain's Sunday Times newspaper that bribes were paid to officials to bring the sporting world's biggest global event to the tiny Gulf emirate, where temperatures during the summer when the tournament is played can soar above 50 degrees Celsius (120 Fahrenheit).
The allegations of corruption at the heart of soccer's governing body threaten to overshadow the run-up to the four-yearly World Cup, which begins in 10 days in Brazil.
“After months of interviewing witnesses and gathering materials, we intend to complete that phase of our investigation by June 9, 2014, and to submit a report to the Adjudicatory Chamber approximately six weeks thereafter," Garcia said in a statement released by FIFA and referring to a FIFA panel.
"The report will consider all evidence potentially related to the bidding process, including evidence collected from prior investigations.”
Six weeks from June 9 is July 21, a week after this year's tournament ends with a final in Rio de Janeiro.
As a former U.S. attorney, Garcia tried some of the highest profile anti-terrorism cases in the United States. He also investigated the prostitution case that brought down a governor of New York. Peter Goldsmith, a member of FIFA's Independent Governance Committee, became the latest international soccer official to say that the decision to hold the event in Qatar must be revoked if corruption is proved.
"I believe that if these allegations are shown to be true, then the hosting decision for Qatar has to be rerun," Goldsmith, a former British attorney-general, told BBC radio. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who has said the decision to award the 2022 tournament to Qatar was a mistake due to the summer heat, refused to comment on the bribery allegations on Monday.
He and FIFA's secretary-general, Jerome Valcke, were both in Brazil preparing for kick-off of this year's tournament. Valcke also refused to comment.
FIFA's secretary-general, Jerome Valcke, declined to comment when approached by reporters at an event in Rio de Janeiro.
Losing the hosting rights would be a blow to Qatar's efforts to raise its global profile, though its oil and gas wealth would allow it to absorb substantial financial losses. Any rerun of the bidding could favour the losers in the FIFA vote held in 2010 - Australia, the United States, Japan and South Korea.
The sport was rocked when the Sunday Times reported on Sunday that it had evidence that around $5 million was paid to officials in return for votes for Qatar's successful bid, allegations organisers have "vehemently" denied. The former official at the centre of the allegations, a Qatari who was the head of football in Asia at the time of the decision to award the cup to his native country, has yet to comment publicly on the allegations.
The former official, Mohamed Bin Hammam, was barred from soccer for life in a separate case in 2011 for attempting to bribe officials while mounting a bid to replace Blatter as FIFA head. That ban was overturned but replaced with a new lifetime ban for conflicts of interest.
The Sunday Times published what it said were leaked emails and account records showing Bin Hammam had overseen payments to officials from national soccer associations in return for their support for Qatar's bid to host the 2022 tournament.
Qatar says Bin Hammam was not a member of its bid team, and that its bid won the day on the merits. It is spending billions to hold the event, including building giant air-cooled stadiums which it says will make it possible to play in one of the hottest parts of the world in the heat of summer.
The world players’ union FIFPro, said the scandal showed that players should have a greater say in running the game. "Presently, players and players’ interests are too often neglected or ignored in the decision-making process," said the Dutch-based union in a statement.
"It is unacceptable that administration of the game continues to be plagued by scandal after scandal." The Sunday Times story said Bin Hammam made the payments and took soccer officials on expensive junkets while running the Asian Football Confederation, based in Kuala Lumpur.