Russia and Qatar were cleared Thursday by a FIFA judge of corruption in their winning bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
FIFA ethics judge Joachim Eckert formally ended a probe into the bidding contests, almost four years after the vote by the governing body's scandal-tainted executive committee. No proof was found of bribes or voting pacts.
"The evaluation of the 2018/2022 FIFA World Cups bidding process is closed for the FIFA Ethics Committee," the German judge wrote in a statement released by FIFA.
The 2022 World Cup will finally, it seems, be played in Qatar — though exactly when is still unclear as FIFA seeks an alternative to the desert heat in June and July.
"FIFA welcomes the fact that a degree of closure has been reached," the governing body said Thursday in a statement. "As such, FIFA looks forward to continuing the preparations for Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022, which are already well under way."
Despite finding wrongdoing among the 11 bidding nations, Eckert said the integrity of the votes was not affected.
"In particular, the effects of these occurrences on the bidding process as a whole were far from reaching any threshold that would require returning to the bidding process, let alone reopening it," he summarized.
The corruption case is still open for past and current members of FIFA's ruling board.
Critics of FIFA have long relied on Eckert and ethics prosecutor Michael Garcia to build a case to remove the wealthy desert emirate as host in 2022 by proving suspicions that votes and influence were bought. Qatar beat the United States 14-8 in the final round of a five-nation contest.
That hope ended as FIFA released Eckert's 42-page summary findings of the investigation reports, which have stayed secret against Garcia's wishes.
Whistleblower evidence from a former Qatar bid staffer who said there were illicit payments made to African voters was dismissed.
Payments by Mohamed bin Hammam to other African officials and FIFA vice-president Jack Warner were judged to be for the disgraced Qatari's personal political interests, not the 2022 bid.
Still, both winners had issues highlighted by Eckert.
Qatar's bid had "potentially problematic facts and circumstances," plus a "significant lack of transparency" in its use of advisers. Computers leased for use by Russia staffers were later destroyed.
Garcia, a former U.S. Attorney in New York, was asked by Eckert to prosecute cases against individuals.
Exactly who that implicates is unclear as Eckert did not reveal who Garcia suspects of wrongdoing. Nor did Eckert identify by name any serving member of the FIFA board, except when praising FIFA President Sepp Blatter, nor officials linked to the nine bid candidates.
Eckert has previously said his final judgments could take until April. Appeals against sanctions, to FIFA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport, could extend the process even further.
England's failed 2018 campaign, which received only two of 22 votes in an all-European race, fared badly in Eckert's report. Netherlands-Belgium had no issues and Eckert did not include comments on the Spain-Portugal candidacy, which appeared to be the bid noted as the least co-operative with Garcia.
In the 2022 race, Australia was criticized for its consultants' behaviour, while the United States, Japan and South Korea received only minor comments.
Garcia and his team gave Eckert 430 pages of reports after interviewing more than 75 witnesses, and amassing 200,000 pages of supporting documents.
Eckert acknowledged the probe lacked "coercive means" to seize potential evidence such as "money and paper trails," and had to rely on co-operation of witnesses.
Yet of 11 board members in 2010 who are no longer at FIFA, three declined to speak with Garcia and two could not be contacted.
Addressing public skepticism about how Qatar and Russia won, Eckert pointed to his duty as judge.
"The perception for example, according to which a FIFA World Cup vote must have been 'bought' if the host selected is not the one that has been generally considered a favourite ... is mere speculation and far from anything a judicial body like the FIFA Ethics Committee is allowed to accept as proof," Eckert noted.
A summary of the findings of the report by the FIFA ethics committee's investigation released on Thursday:
The report pointed to "potentially problematic connections between financial and other support for 'football development' and the bidding process."
It said the requests, and Australia's co-operation, "helped create the appearance that benefits were conferred in exchange for a vote thus undermining the credibility of the process."
"Moreover, the report identified certain payments from the Football Federation of Australia (FFA) to CONCACAF which...appear to have been co-mingled, at least in part, with personal funds of the then CONCACAF President who at the time also was a FIFA Executive Committee member."
The report concluded that "there are certain indications of potentially problematic conduct of specific individuals in the light of relevant FIFA Ethics rules."
The report "did not identify any issues with regard to the Belgium/Holland 2018 bid."
The England bid team were heavily criticised for indulging the then FIFA executive committee member Jack Warner.
This included sponsoring a gala dinner in his native Trinidad and helping an acquaintance find part-time employment in the United Kingdom. Warner also requested benefits for Joe Public, a football club he owned in Trinidad, and the country's football federation.
It added that "three of the four FIFA Executive Committee members made improper requests for support or favours towards the England 2018 bid team and/or the FA during the bidding process.
"With regard to at least two of these committee members, England 2018 accommodated, or at least attempted to satisfy, the improper requests."
It said there was "potentially problematic conduct" by individuals which could lead to further investigation.
Distributed gifts to senior FIFA officials, members of the executive committee and some of their wives. The value varied from $700 to $2,000 each.
The executive committee members denied receiving improper gifts and their explanations and perceptions were "troubling", the report said.
The report concluded that any problems "were not even remotely suited to compromise the integrity of the FIFA World Cup 2018/2022 bidding process as a whole."
The report said that Mong-Joon Chung, a FIFA executive committee member and honorary president of the Korean FA, had sent letters to his fellow members about a proposal to establish a global football fund.
He said South Korea intended to raise $777 million to aid confederations and national associations.
The report concluded that "the Global Football Fund letters created at least the appearance of a conflict or an offer of benefits to FIFA Executive Committee members in an effort to influence their votes."
It concluded that there was a "potentially problematic conduct of specific individuals"
The report criticised a lack of transparency in the relations between the Qatar bid team and two advisors, whose conduct "raised concerns in the light of relevant FIFA ethics rules."
The report said the financing of a friendly between Brazil and Argentina, played in Doha in 2010, raised concerns under relevant ethics rules "in particular in relation to certain arrangements concerning payments intended for the Argentina Football Association.
"However, the relevant arrangements were not connected to the Qatar 2022 bid."
The report said that Qatar's sponsorship of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) Congress in Angola in 2010, at an estimated cost of $1.8 million, created a "negative impression."
The report said the relationship between the Qatar bid and former FIFA executive committee member Mohamed Bin Hammam, a fellow Qatari who was banned for life in 2011 in a cash-for-votes scandal, was "somewhat distant".
Russia made a "limited amount" of documents available to the investigation because "the computers used at the time by the Russia bid Committee had been leased and then returned to their owner after the Bidding Process. The owner has confirmed that the computers were destroyed in the meantime."
The report said Russia attempted to obtain access to the Gmail accounts used during the bidding process from Google USA. "However, the Russia Bid Committee confirmed in a letter dated 1 August 2014 that Google USA had not responded request."
The report said no evidence was found of colluding between the Russia and Japan bids.
The investigation "considered the evidence available as not sufficient to support any findings of misconduct by the Russia 2018 bid team or any individual involved with it suited to compromise the integrity of the FIFA World Cup 2018/2022 bidding process.
The report did not mention the Spain/Portugal bid.