The chairman of high-spending Paris Saint-Germain and the powerful sports broadcaster beIN, both owned by Qatar state funds, has been accused in Switzerland of criminally bribing the former Fifa secretary general Jérôme Valcke to buy TV rights to World Cup tournaments.
Nasser al-Khelaifi, one of the most powerful figures in European and world football because of PSG’s and beIN’s Qatari backing and Fifa’s controversial vote for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, was named as the subject of a criminal proceeding by the Swiss attorney general’s office (OAG) on Thursday.
In an announcement that revealed a new dimension to the corruption scandals and criminal investigations that have engulfed football’s world governing body since 2015, Khelaifi was accused of bribing Valcke in connection with the award of TV rights for the 2026 and 2030 World Cups. beIN Sports has bought from Fifa the rights to broadcast those tournaments to countries in the Middle East and north Africa.
Following a request from the OAG to legal authorities in France, searches were carried out at beIN’s offices at Boulogne-Billancourt in Paris, where the broadcaster – and PSG – dominate French football.
The broadcaster, of which Khelaifi is the chief executive as well as chairman, said in a statement: “beIN refutes all accusations made by OAG. The company will fully cooperate with the authorities and is confident as to the future developments of the investigation.”
The OAG said it had also opened a new criminal proceeding against Valcke and an unnamed figure in the sports rights business, who is accused of having bribed Valcke in connection with the award of media rights for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, 2022 in Qatar and the 2026 and 2030 tournaments.
“It is suspected that Jérôme Valcke accepted undue advantages” from both men in relation to the tournaments, the OAG said in a statement.
Khelaifi, Valcke and the unnamed businessman are collectively suspected of bribery, fraud, criminal mismanagement and forgery of a document, in a criminal proceeding – effectively an investigation rather than charges – ongoing since 20 March this year. Legal authorities in France, Greece, Italy and Spain cooperated with this area of the Swiss criminal investigation and “properties were searched in various locations”.
Khelaifi, said to be a friend and close associate of the Qatar Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, took over as the chairman and chief executive of PSG after a sovereign wealth fund, Qatar Sports Investments, bought the then ailing club in 2011.
The purchase followed a November 2010 lunch the Emir had at the Élysée Palace with the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the then Uefa president Michel Platini, at which Platini as a Fifa executive committee member was urged to vote for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup.
Platini later confirmed he did change his vote from the United States to Qatar but denied he was influenced by the lunch.
QSI bought PSG, whom Sarkozy supports, six months after the Fifa vote and have since spent hundreds of millions of pounds on players to take the club to the latter rounds of the Champions League.
The spending culminated in this summer’s record-breaking £198m purchase of Neymar from Barcelona and signing Kylian Mbappé from Monaco for £167m, which led to Uefa opening a formal investigation into whether the club is complying with financial fair play break-even rules. PSG have said they are complying.
Three weeks after the PSG purchase in June 2011, beIN Sports, an arm of the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera broadcaster, put huge money into France’s Ligue 1, paying vastly increased sums for the TV rights jointly with Canal+, and has since paid more money for the rights from 2016-20.
The Qatari broadcaster has also bought from Fifa World Cup rights for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments in the Middle East and north Africa and announced last year it had bought the rights to also broadcast those tournaments in France on a pay-TV basis.
Valcke was banned from football for 12 years, later reduced to 10, by Fifa’s ethics committee in February last year for seven breaches of the organisation’s ethics code, including attempting to sell TV rights for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments for “far below their actual value”.
The other allegations found by the committee to be proven included excessive use of private jets and involvement in an improper proposed World Cup ticket deal.
The following month the OAG announced it had opened proceedings against Valcke “on suspicion of various acts of criminal mismanagement and other offences” in relation to two matters investigated by Fifa’s ethics committee. The OAG said this further proceeding against Valcke, Khelaifi and the other man “has been opened primarily on the basis of findings obtained in this earlier proceeding”.
Valcke was interviewed as a suspect in Switzerland on Thursday, the OAG said.
In a statement, Fifa said: “Fifa fully supports the investigation conducted by the Swiss office of the attorney general as well as the other involved authorities that has become public today. Fifa has constituted itself as a damaged party in this investigation, in line with the applicable provisions of Swiss procedural law.”
The Guardian approached Valcke’s lawyer, Barry Berke, for comment and had not received a response at the time of writing. This week the court of arbritation for sport in Lausanne commenced hearing Valcke’s appeal against his ban by Fifa’s ethics committee.