By Mike Collett-White
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - The organisers of Qatar's successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup have denied allegations that they gained unfair advantage by bribing soccer officials who would decide which country staged the biggest, and most lucrative event in the sporting calendar.
In their most robust defence yet of their campaign to host the tournament, Qatar 2022 criticised allegations of corruption that have emerged in recent weeks, overshadowing the buildup to the Brazilian World Cup, which began on Thursday.
Qatar has always denied that its bid was improper, but the latest statement was particularly strongly-worded, suggesting a renewed push to avert any attempt to strip it of the tournament.
"These allegations are baseless and riddled with innuendo designed to tarnish the reputation of Qatar's 2022 Bid Committee," the organisers said.
They added that the allegations appeared to be deliberately timed to coincide with an investigation by FIFA, world soccer's governing body, into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Russia won the right to host the 2018 tournament.
Michael Garcia, the U.S. lawyer leading the probe, said in Brazil this month that he would consider any evidence brought before him before releasing a final report.
If corruption were proved, Qatar could be stripped of the Cup, or at least face a challenge to its position as host either through a re-vote or other processes.
"It should be clear that these leaks are not an attempt to shine light on the 2018/2022 bidding process," the statement said. "They are, instead, a flagrant attempt to prejudice an ongoing independent investigation.
"Certainly, if the source of these leaks were genuinely concerned with the evidence, they would have provided the leaked documents to Mr. Garcia, as he requested, instead of offering them to the media."
BANNED OFFICIAL "NOT ON BID TEAM"
Britain's Sunday Times newspaper reported this month that some of the "millions of documents" it had seen linked payments by former FIFA executive committee member Mohamed Bin Hammam, a Qatari, to officials to win backing for Qatar's World Cup bid.
Bin Hammam has not commented on his involvement since he was banned for life from soccer in 2012. The Qatar 2022 statement confirmed that it had a "relationship" with Bin Hammam, but repeated earlier denials that he worked on its bid.
"Let us be clear: Mr. Bin Hammam is from Qatar, but he was not a member of Qatar's bid team."
"We have nothing to hide ... In every aspect of the 2018/2022 FIFA World Cup bidding process, we strictly adhered to FIFA's rules and regulations."
Qatar 2022 said it expected further "attacks" on the bid process this weekend, a reference to a series of articles that have appeared in the Sunday Times about the buildup to the 2010 decision on who should host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
On Saturday, the newspaper released details of its latest report, in which it said FIFA bosses had been warned in a "secret terror briefing" prior to the 2010 vote that there was a "high risk" of a terrorist attack shutting down the event.
It said FIFA's executive committee (Exco) was briefed on the report written by André Pruis, the South African police chief in charge of security at the 2010 World Cup.
While other bid nations' risk was assessed as low to moderate, Pruis concluded: "In view of the risks ... Qatar is allocated a risk rating of high. I am of the view that it would be very difficult to deal with a major incident in such an environment without having to cancel the event."
A spokesman for Qatar 2022 said he had no comment on the latest report.
On Sunday, FIFA spokeswoman Delia Fischer said the article was misleading.
"As you know, any major event held in big cities or countries are always at potential risk," she told a regular media briefing at the Brazilian World Cup.
"The way the Sunday Times has put it is out of context. According to their arguments, you would not be allowed to have any major events in any major cities.
"Big events like the Olympic Games have a huge number of people and athletes all coming together, so any major city is at potential risk."
HEAT AN ISSUE
Some people were stunned when FIFA president Sepp Blatter pulled Qatar's name out of an envelope in 2010. They wondered why the Cup had gone to a country with a population of 2 million people, with little soccer heritage and where summer temperatures average around 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
FIFA's own inspection team, which examined all the bids in forensic detail following site visits during 2010, advised decision-makers not to back Qatar citing mainly the summer heat.
Blatter said last month it had been "a mistake" to award the finals to the country in the summer due to the heat, but later said his quote in French had been mistranslated.
Qatar 2022 addressed the issue of the heat in its statement.
"We developed cooling technology to cope with the climate of the Middle East, technology that would prove enormously valuable for nations in similar climates around the world," it said.
Organisers also said they had introduced better welfare standards for workers involved in constructing the infrastructure to host the event, following separate media reports of poor labour conditions.
"We are already constructing three stadiums and by the end of the year two more will be in development," they said. "Our country has demonstrated its support, spending more than $23 billion on transport infrastructure projects alone. And to be clear - we will do this as we advance worker welfare within Qatar."
(Additional reporting by Stephen Addison in London and Mike Collett in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Peter Cooney, Eric Walsh and Peter Graff)