Rarely in the book world does a tome come around that fundamentally alters the way we look at the subject for the better or worse. One such book is The Ugly Game by Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert, two members of The Sunday Times Insight Team.
In the most important soccer book since the last exposé published by Declan Hill, this book is a deep dive into the data and information the Insight Team wrote about prior to the 2014 World Cup and the corruption around the 2022 World Cup bidding; However the book covers more details, more stories, and more scandals. The dissection of FIFA and the bidding process is so thorough and so complete that I am left feeling rather numb, which in itself speaks to the enormity of the problem outlined in this book.
The plot is simple. This is the story of how Mohammed bin Hammam paid and cheated the way for Qatar to win the rights to host the 2022 World Cup, as well as his fall from grace in his attempt to secure that bid against subsequent pressure. Some of the information is old news, as it was released in the media last year. What makes this different, however, is the extreme amount of details. Blake and Calvert were exposed to a massive financial, email, and written communication database around the bid that forced them to spend days compiling a comprehensive narrative (more on this in a moment). For the first time, we go into detail about the hows and whys bin Hammam was able to convince enough Executive Committee voters to place the most prestigious sports tournament in the world in a tiny desert country with no soccer history.
There are two things that make this book outstanding. The first is the aforementioned level of detail and how it is compiled. The second is how the story is told. The authors place bin Hammam at the center of the story and make his quest the central force of the action. He was not born a royal birth but worked his way into riches and the graces of the royal family; bringing the World Cup to Qatar would make the ruling family happy – it fulfills a major goal for the country – and secures his position as a leader. Thus throughout the book I found myself growing attached to, even rooting for bin Hammam to succeed. His methods are scuzzy and terribly corrupt; he screwed over the USA from hosting a World Cup. And yet, I can relate to wanting to please someone in power, and bin Hammam’s quest is in a sense reasonable. That’s what makes this book amazing – you sometimes tend to root for the bad guy because the details and information are so deep you know much about him and his motives.
Throughout a chronological narrative of the rise and fall of bin Hammam, the authors on occasion slip into the third person to describe their secret research and give the story context. Rather than being annoying, as it may sound, this actually was a good change of pace and added to the narrative.
But here’s the problem, and it’s more a problem with the reader than with the book. At this point, with all the leaks, investigations, and reports, we’ve begun to grow numb to just how corrupt FIFA is. For example, the book details the courtship of bin Hammam to the heads of the individual African nation FAs. He flies them to Qatar and other meetings, paying all of their expenses. They make requests for funds to “rebuild their FA’s infrastructure” (of course through payments to their personal accounts) in the five and six figures, and bin Hammam makes it happen. Although a final total is not provided, for Africa alone bin Hammam must have spent tens of millions in (alleged) bribes just on African FA leaders. This is staggering and a damning report on how deep and invasive corruption is in organized soccer.
And yet… I was not outraged. At least not at bin Hammam. Rather, I grew angry that the USA seemingly had no idea what was going on even though other bid nations and interesting parties did. I have read so much and been exposed to so much on FIFA corruption that of course I anticipated Qatar lining the pockets of hundreds of people to secure this. The great work of so many journalists prepared me for this topic so that failed to shock me, which is a sad indictment on the state of the game.
Despite all this, The Ugly Game is a must read for serious soccer fans. Until we begin to take corruption seriously in the sport and hold FIFA accountable, shenanigans like the 2022 bid will continue to occur. This book and its amazing reporting is just the kind of call to action to force change in FIFA. It’s an easy read to help with that process. I just hope other readers are not as jaded as I am, and can be moved to action by the corruption in the system.