Between 2013 and 2015, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) football club boss and head of beIN Media Group, Nasser al-Khelaifi, showed great generosity towards Jérôme Valcke, then secretary general of global football governing body FIFA, as further detailed in this investigation by Mediapart and its media partners in the journalistic consortium European Investigative Collaborations (EIC).
Meanwhile, after a three-year corruption probe targeting the two men led by federal prosecutors in Switzerland, prompted by a complaint filed by FIFA, which is headquartered in Zurich, which related to the awarding of 2026 and 2030 World Cup broadcast rights to the beIN Sports channel, the Swiss attorney general’s office announced in February that it had abandoned all but one of its indictment procedures.
Instead of facing trial on corruption charges, Valcke, 59, a former French sports journalist, is to stand trial for a lesser charge of "aggravated criminal mismanagement", while al-Khelaifi, 46, and another person who was not named, are charged with "inciting aggravated criminal mismanagement" in a case due to be heard in September.
Both al-Khelaifi and Valcke firmly deny any wrongdoing.
In its indictment against al-Khelaifi, the Swiss Attorney General’s office detailed how the beIN boss and PSG president purchased and then placed at Valcke’s rent-free disposition a luxurious villa the Qatari had bought in the Italian island of Sardinia, representing an advantage for Valcke valued at between 900,000 euros and 1.8 million euros.
But the Swiss prosecutors, who had planned to try al-Khelaifi for corruption, were forced to abandon their case after FIFA dropped its criminal complaint against the Qatari executive following an amicable agreement reached between the federation and him in January.
Following that, al-Khelaifi issued a statement which began: “I have been cleared of all suspicions of bribery and the case has been dismissed definitively and conclusively. While a secondary technical charge remains outstanding, I have every expectation that this will be proven completely groundless.”
Al-Khelaifi was also suspected of bribery over an expensive Cartier watch offered to Valcke who, as FIFA secretary general was effectively the body’s second-most powerful executive. But it was the prosecutors themselves who decided to drop that case because, they wrote in a statement issued in February, “the suspicion that Valcke accepted a luxury watch that al-Khelaifi offered him in return for exerting his influence as Secretary General of FIFA was not found to be substantiated”.
The details established by the investigation into the gift of the watch could have proven embarrassing for al-Khelaïfi and FIFA, as illustrated by judicial documents seen by Mediapart and its partners in the EIC.
Material elements also reinforce suggestions that Qatar, through the involvement of al-Khelaifi and beIN Sports, may have provided Valcke and FIFA with favours in order to obtain the agreement that the 2022 World Cup hosted by Qatar could be played in winter, as opposed to the normal summer period.
Nasser al-Khelaifi declined to be interviewed by Mediapart about precise details which have emerged in this investigation. Mediapart and the EIC were told by his lawyers that the allegations in this report were “ridiculous”, and that there was no link between the beIN contract for TV rights to World Cup games, the Italian villa and the holding of the 2022 World Cup in winter. They also accused Mediapart of a biased investigation that had a “narrow, predetermined and deeply biased agenda”. They added that the abandonment of the official proceedings into the case of the watch was because the allegations “did not have, and never had, any factual basis whatsoever”.
Qatar was awarded the 2022 tournament, the world’s most prestigious football competition, in 2010. At the time, FIFA executives knew that to play the games during the normal period of the summer would be impossible due to the heat in the gulf state at that time of the year. But reaching a decision on the issue dragged on over five years, during which Qatar put every effort into retaining the hosting of the competition.
The final stage in reaching that decision was played out on February 24th 2015, when Jérôme Valcke and a FIFA delegation were in the Qatari capital Doha for a crucial meeting on the calendar for the games.
At midday that same day, the FIFA delegation’s special committee into the 2022 games recommended they should be played in November and December. It was then up to the FIFA executive committee to validate the recommendation, which it would do seven months later.
Shortly after the meeting, at 12.30 pm, Al-Khelaifi and Valcke held a secret one-and-a-half-hour meeting at the headquarters of the Qatari tennis federation, which was presided by al-Khelaifi. At 2.19pm, just after leaving his host, Valcke sent a phone text message to al-Khelaifi which read: “Thank you Nasser. Anything you need you know you can count on me”. Al-Khelaifi replied: “You are the best”.
Questioned by Swiss prosecutors about that confidential meeting, Valcke said it was an amicable appointment, with no link to the question of the World Cup, and that his text message was a simple expression of friendship that concerned no matter in particular.
During the afternoon of February 24th 2015, Valcke visited the site of one of the stadiums to be built for the 2022 World Cup, and returned to his hotel at about 6pm. In his room he was to discover, on the bed, a Cartier watch in rose gold, a model called Santos Dumont Squelette, worth around 40,000 euros. At 6.05pm, Valcke sent a phone text message to his wife along with a photo of the watch. “Gift from Nasser,” he wrote. “Wooioowwwwwew,” she replied, “For what???” Valcke replied: “Just a gift”.
The FIFA secretary general then, at 6.14pm, sent a text message to al-Khelaifi. “Thank you Nasser for your gift. Beautiful”, it read. Fifteen minutes later, Valcke sent another text message to al-Khelaifi, alerting him that the “guaranty is about another model than the watch in the box!”.
In their report on the abandoning of proceedings against Valcke and al-Khelaifi over suspected bribery behind the gift, the Swiss prosecutors said that Valcke, under questioning during their investigations, had “indicated that it was clear to him that the watch had been offered to him by al-Khelaifi” and that he saw no person other than al-Khelaifi who could have offered the gift.
Al-Khelaifi, meanwhile, denied having offered the watch, pointing out that he did not reply to Valcke’s text messages and adding that the watch was “perhaps” a gift from the office of the Qatari emir.
Al-Khelaifi, who has the status of a minister in Qatar, produced a written statement from a former British ambassador to Qatar who served in the post from 1990-1993. Immediately after retiring from the diplomatic service in 2001, the former ambassador served for one year as an adviser to the Emir of Qatar, and currently works in the private sector.
In his statement, he declared that in general it was quite usual in Qatar for the palace office to offer, on its own initiative, generous gifts to visiting dignitaries, and frequently these were placed in their hotel rooms before their departure.
The former ambassador did not respond to Mediapart’s attempts to contact him.
In their report, the Swiss prosecutors said that al-Khelaifi’s denials that he offered the watch “appear unconvincing”. But they said their proceedings over the matter were dropped because there remained a “doubt” as to whether al-Khelaifi was behind the gift and their investigation had not been able “to confirm” the “initial suspicion” of bribery.
The prosecutors suspected also that al-Khelaifi, as head of the beIN Sports, may have attempted to bribe Valcke with the watch and use of the villa in Sardinia in order to obtain, in 2014, the TV rights for broadcasting in the Middle East and North Africa the 2026 and 2030 football World Cup tournaments at a knockdown price.
Al-Khelaifi’s lawyers had little difficulty in deconstructing that allegation since beIN finally bought the rights for a record sum of 480 million dollars. In a statement given to the prosecutors, a FIFA executive noted that “Nobody could compete” with the offer by beIN.
But as illustrated in previous investigations by Mediapart and the EIC, and also by the case of the watch, there was another possible motive for the generosity – supported by evidence – but which the Swiss prosecutors chose not to explore, namely the moving of the 2022 World Cup to dates in the winter.
If FIFA prevaricated for five years before deciding in Qatar’s favour, it was because holding the World cup in wintertime was a problem across the game, disrupting the traditional calendars of national football competitions and also lowering advertising income because of the other sports events happening at that same time. The dilemma was illustrated on several occasions in the relations between al-Khelaifi and Valcke.
Two days later, Valcke travelled by private jet from Zurich to Paris where he picked up al-Khelaifi and flew on to Doha for a secret meeting with the Emir of Qatar, Sheik Tamim al-Thani. The three men discussed the issue of moving the 2022 World Cup to the winter, as confirmed in Valcke’s defence statement in the case he brought against FIFA after it suspended him from his post in 2015, initially over allegations he sold World Cup tickets at inflated prices (he was finally sacked in January 2016 and subsequently banned from exercising professional activities in football for nine years).