LONDON – Sony Corp. became the first World Cup sponsor to call for a thorough investigation into accusations bribes were paid to secure the 2022 tournament for Qatar, raising pressure on soccer chiefs who have threatened to move the event if the allegations are proved true.
Soccer’s governing body, FIFA, is conducting an internal investigation into the decisions to hold the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 tournament in Qatar.
Although the Sony statement is carefully worded, it is unusual for a sponsor to say anything publicly on such a sensitive issue and appears to reflect concern over the knock-on effects on the consumer electronics giant’s image.
Qatar’s bid in particular has attracted controversy from the outset because of the extreme summer heat during the months when the World Cup is played and the tiny country’s lack of a domestic soccer tradition. If it goes ahead, the tournament is expected to be switched to a date later in the year, creating scheduling headaches for broadcasters and European soccer clubs.
Britain’s The Sunday Times newspaper has printed what it says are leaked documents showing bribes were paid to secure the event for Qatar, which Qatar denies. Former U.S. prosecutor Michael Garcia, leading FIFA’s internal investigation, is due to report in July, around a week after this year’s World Cup finishes in Brazil.
Until now, FIFA’s sponsors have stayed silent. The Sunday Times quoted a Sony statement as saying: “As a FIFA partner, we expect these allegations to be investigated appropriately. . . . We continue to expect FIFA to adhere to its principles of integrity, ethics and fair play across all aspects of its operations.”
“This underlines that companies need to make sure that any high profile association enhances their reputation rather than damages it,” said Andy Sutherden, global head of sports marketing & sponsorship at communications firm H+K Strategies.
The Times printed fresh accusations on Sunday, just four days before the 2014 tournament kicks off in Brazil, alleging that then-Asian football chief Mohamed Bin Hammam, a Qatari national, 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.
FIFA earned almost $1.4 billion last year, including more than $600 million from broadcasting rights and over $400 million from sponsors and other marketing partners.
Sony is one of six main FIFA sponsors who collectively paid around $180 million last year. Sony’s sponsorship agreement expires this year, giving it particular leverage as it negotiates a new deal.