FIFA ethics judge hesitates to flex muscles in World Cup investigation

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GENEVA — For Qatar or Russia to be stripped of the World Cup, a key person in the legal chain needs to make use of the powers available to him.

Events of recent days, however, suggest FIFA's independent ethics judge Joachim Eckert will interpret the rules more cautiously and have added to the pessimism of critics who want the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting awards overturned.

Eckert is a middle man in the process — between Michael Garcia, the ethics prosecutor who must provide the evidence, and FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who heads the 27-member executive committee and Congress of 209 national associations.

It may fall to Eckert — in the toughness of his verdicts and language of his final report — to raise public pressure on FIFA to take the highest-risk, highest-reward options in a case that will define the reputation of football's world governing body.

"That is not our job," Eckert said at FIFA last Friday, when giving his most detailed insight yet on the investigation. "We will not make any recommendations."

Ever since a 22-man FIFA executive committee chose Russia and Qatar in December 2010, critics have sought reasons to justify change.

Their hope has been sustained by reports and allegations calling into question Qatar's fitness to host the world's favorite sporting event: Voting collusion, bribery, rights of slave labor and gay fans, extreme heat and disruption to European club football have all been raised as reasons to remove the tournament.

The wait for a definitive independent probe into the contests has been peppered with resignations of FIFA executive committee members implicated in other cases of unethical behavior.

The integrity of FIFA's ruling board has been lacking so often that it added to an impression something must have been wrong when those now-discredited men were power brokers.

For those critics of FIFA, last Friday must have been difficult.

Still, Eckert has more authority than he admits to, according to some sports lawyers who talked to The Associated Press about the blockbuster case.

Eckert suggested last Friday he is limited by FIFA rules to only judge individuals using evidence provided by ethics prosecutor Michael Garcia, the American lawyer leading the investigation.

It is, according to Eckert, for the FIFA executive board or the congress of 209 member associations to decide if the independent ethics committee's work justifies voting again on which country should host the competition.

Not necessarily so, some experienced sports lawyers told the AP in recent interviews.

"What is the point of an ethics commission if it can't take the biggest political decisions?" said one lawyer who has been involved in FIFA cases.

"According to the rules it is possible," said another, suggesting that FIFA's ethics committee can take "any kinds of decisions."

The lawyers spoke on condition of anonymity because they could potentially be involved in legal cases arising from the Garcia-Eckert probe.

Eckert refused to say if sanctions were likely against some officials involved in the contest, such as voting members of the FIFA board or staffers from the nine bidding candidates from 11 countries.

However, Garcia's initial investigative reports suggested "conclusions concerning further action with respect to certain individuals," according to a FIFA news release this month.

Eckert said he expects to finish reading these reports within weeks. Further drafts and evidence-gathering can be ordered before formal cases are opened, possibly in November. Defendants and charges are unlikely to be identified then, and Eckert has suggested the first verdicts could follow in the European spring next year.

By playing down expectations, the German judge was supported by some established sports lawyers.

One who has worked in past FIFA cases agreed that Eckert could only target individuals, and not collective bodies such as an executive committee or bidding team.

Eckert does not have the powers of "a super-president or a super-ExCo" to change decisions, the lawyer suggested.

Asked if Russia or Qatar could lose hosting rights, the lawyer said: "Personally, I doubt that."

"The assumption that something is wrong was so strong," said Luis Moreno Ocampo, a prosecutor from Argentina who was blocked for the FIFA position in 2012 by the executive committee, when Garcia was appointed.

A majority of the 2018-2022 voters were also on the FIFA board that chose Germany ahead of a South Africa bid supported by Nelson Mandela to be 2006 World Cup host, and then took South Africa ahead of Morocco for 2010. Both votes were dogged by rumors, intrigue and — in the case of Morocco — verbal evidence of bribes paid that was presented to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

A majority of the FIFA board who took part in those World Cup votes were still in office in December 2010, when the Qatar vote was taken.

Most have since left, and could refuse Garcia's request for cooperation. Mohamed bin Hammam, Jack Warner, Ricardo Teixeira and Nicolas Leoz all resigned while under investigation in other cases.

"90 percent of the big guys have gone," noted one senior sports lawyer to the AP about Eckert's limited sanctioning powers.

However, with some reform-minding newcomers at the FIFA board table perhaps the 27 current members could push for a high-risk, high-reward strategy of a re-vote? Unlikely, the sports lawyers suggested.

A breach of contract case brought by the Russian and Qatari organizing committees would likely go through civil courts, not CAS, and embroil FIFA in lengthy, costly actions with the clock ticking ahead to the 2018 kick off.

"Those are the practical considerations," said one lawyer. Another simply doubted if FIFA had the will for a fight like that.

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