England's 2018 World Cup bid hired corporate investigations agency to spy on rivals
England football officials hired a "corporate investigations" company to probe their rivals during the failed bid to host the 2018 World Cup, Telegraph Sport can disclose.
The company, RISC, was used as a surveillance agency, operating in the five-star Baur au Lac hotel where many bid delegations – including England’s – took rooms. Significant numbers of Fifa executive committee members also stayed there and it became the focus of lobbying before the votes last December to decide the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
The Football Association declined to comment on RISC’s role but sources with knowledge of the bid’s operations insisted that they were retained to oversee rival bidders in public areas of the Baur Au Lac on the banks of Lake Zurich, and that there was no covert operation.
They also accused the Dutch of using diplomatic staff to watch what England were doing, and suggested the Russian bid had covert employees monitoring other bids.
“Whatever ‘surveillance’ there may have been was limited to people sitting in public areas of the hotels seeing who was meeting who,” the source said. “Just as the Dutch had embassy officials monitoring who was meeting who. There was no use of electronic devices.”
A source familiar with the operation said that there was an attempt to use “dirty tricks” to try to illicitly establish the views of foreign football federations towards the English bid.
Another source close to the English bid described on Monday night the hiring of RISC as a “fairly desperate attempt” to garner information. “The bid team were very keen to establish any information on foul play by other federations,” the source said. “But it all became very messy and basically ended up as a classic dirty tricks campaign.”
On Monday night, Sepp Blatter, president of Fifa, said: “When you speak about spies here and there we are in this game and in this game we have to realise there are a lot of people that want to destroy something but it’s a question of fair play,” Blatter said. “Fair play is one of the matters that has been invented by British football.”
RISC, which is run by former Metropolitan Police officers, is thought to have eavesdropped on conversations between members of other bid teams. The firm’s website claims it can offer clients “highly trained surveillance operatives [who] have garnered years of specialist experience often in hostile and volatile surroundings”.
The disclosure of the controversial contract comes as MPs on Tuesday prepare to begin questioning senior figures involved in the failed bid – which led to England receiving just two votes despite a multi-million pound campaign involving the Prime Minister and Prince William. There is no suggestion, however, that they were aware of RISC’s work on the 2018 bid.
The emergence of the RISC contract has surprised international football as England boasted during the bidding process of its “whiter than white” approach. Other bid teams are also understood to have employed rival corporate intelligence agencies.
A bid insider said that all England’s rivals were using private-intelligence agencies in the final days of the campaign. “You have to assume that everybody was doing it. Do you really think the Russians weren’t doing it? Everybody was listening to everyone else. The place was full of odd-looking individuals watching and listening to what everyone else was doing.”
RISC is a company with links to wealthy Russian oligarchs in London and is one of the more colourful security companies operating in London.
It was first established as ISC Global, a company set up in October 2000 by a lawyer called Stephen Curtis. He died in a helicopter accident in 2004, in a crash that his family claimed was highly suspicious.
Curtis acted for a group of billionaire Russians led by Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Leonid Nevzlin, who controlled Yukos, Russia’s privatised energy giant. The two men have since fought a highly-publicised battle against the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.
Khodorkovsky is serving a 14-year term after being found guilty of stealing more than $25?billion (£15?billion) worth of oil from three subsidiaries of Yukos, his former oil company. Nevzlin was found guilty of murder in a Russian court and is now in exile in Israel.
The Yukos oligarchs reportedly provided £3 million to set up ISC.
Another client of the company, Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky has also faced a series of serious allegations in Russia and is living in exile in the UK. The firm was said to have been employed by Mr Berezovsky to collect information in Russia.
After Curtis died, Keith Hunter took over ISC Global and renamed it RISC.
In 2006, the company was embroiled in the scandal that erupted after the murder of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko.
Litvinenko visited the company’s office shortly before he died of polonium poisoning, and traces of the radioactive substance were found at the premises.
On its website, RISC states that it offers surveillance and counter-surveillance. “Evidence gathered by physical surveillance may include video and audio recordings together with other evidence gathering methods,” states the site.
Hunter, a former Scotland Yard policeman, joined the company in 2001 as joint chief executive, and became chief executive of the company after it was rebranded RISC. The 42 year-old lives in Banstead in Surrey.
However, information collected by RISC which is likely to have cost tens of thousands of pounds, ultimately did not help the England bid. Fifa decided to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 championship to Qatar.
Cameron criticised Fifa and its executives after the England bid team lost out. “I definitely had a number of those Fifa executives who looked me in the eye and shook my hand and said ‘Don’t worry, we’re with you’,” said Cameron. “I’m afraid that the world of football governance is rather murky in that way.”
On Monday night, a spokesman for RISC declined to comment on the firm’s clients.