A judge appointed by FIFA, on Thursday dismissed allegations of corruption over Qatar's bid to host the 2022 World Cup, formally ending the probe by world soccer's governing body into the bidding contest. If the finding stands, it would end any prospect of the event being moved to another country -- but the lead investigator on the probe immediately challenged its verdict, and vowed to appeal the matter.
German judge Joachim Eckert on Thursday formally closed FIFA's probe, which also cleared Russia of corruption charges in its successful bid to host the 2018 World Cup, after no proof was found of bribes or voting pacts in an investigation hampered by a lack of access to evidence and uncooperative witnesses.
"The evaluation of the 2018/2022 FIFA World Cups bidding process is closed for the FIFA Ethics Committee," Eckert said in a statement.
"FIFA welcomes the fact that a degree of closure has been reached," the statement continued. "As such, FIFA looks forward to continuing the preparations for Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022, which are already well underway."
But some experts, including Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan and co-author of the book "Soccernomics," told Al Jazeera that the decision, which disappointed critics of the bidding process, was "not going to make the problem go away."
Almost immediately, it was publicly challenged by Michael Garcia, a former New York federal prosecutor appointed by Eckert to conduct an independent investigation into the matter. Garcia’s team had interviewed more than 75 witnesses and presented Eckert with 200,000 pages of evidence.
"Today's decision [by Eckert] contains numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts and conclusions detailed in the Investigatory Chamber's report,'' Garcia said Thursday in a statement released by his law firm. "I intend to appeal this decision to the FIFA Appeal Committee.''
Szymanski said that Garcia's reaction "just destroys entirely the credibility of the FIFA ethics process."
"It's hard to imagine how it could have gone worse for FIFA," he said. "You appoint an investigator, you summarize his report and he instantly disowns your statement."
In his own report, based off of Garcia’s findings, Eckert acknowledged that FIFA lacked "coercive means" to seize potential evidence such as "money and paper trails", and had to rely on cooperation of witnesses.
Of the 11 board members who sat on the committee that awarded Qatar hosting rights, three declined to speak with Garcia’s team and two could not be reached.
Eckert's report also appeared to exclude some of Garcia's toughest language, an official briefed on the investigation told The Associated Press.
"Some of the harshest criticism in the [Garcia] report is aimed at the executive committee, and beyond those named selectively in Eckert's report," the official said on condition of anonymity because the investigation dossier is confidential.
Garcia included "specific criticism of [FIFA] President Sepp Blatter's leadership during the bid process," the official said, pointing to a "culture of entitlement" at the top of the organization.
Addressing questions over how Qatar had won its bid to host the World Cup in 2022, 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 favorite ... is mere speculation and far from anything a judicial body like the FIFA Ethics Committee is allowed to accept as proof," he said.
The Qatari organizing committee told The Associated Press it would study the report before commenting.
With FIFA putting an end to the probe, the only question that remains is if the body will change the timing of the Qatar games so as to avoid the extreme heat of June and July, when the competition is traditionally held.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Philip J. Victor contributed to this report.