Nearly four years after FIFA chose Russia and Qatar to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, the football body's ethics judge exonerated the two countries of any corruption in their winning bids and cleared them to stage the sport's showpiece tournament.
The ruling by German judge Joachim Eckert came despite evidence of some improper conduct by eight of the nine bids.
Eckert's report was denounced by critics as a whitewash and harshly contested by the American prosecutor who led the investigation.
Michael Garcia, the former U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, said he will appeal Eckert's decision to close the case, saying it was based on "materially incomplete and erroneous" interpretation of his own findings — 430 pages of investigative work sealed by FIFA from public scrutiny.
A 42-page report released by FIFA and designed to bestow integrity on the next two World Cup hosts had its own ethics attacked. Eckert's strongest criticism was levelled not at Qatar or Russia but at England's failed 2018 bid — for aggressively wooing a key FIFA voter.
"I think it's a bit of a joke ... the whole process," said England's Football Association chairman Greg Dyke.
CONCACAF President Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands and U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, both members of FIFA's ruling executive committee, called for Garcia's work to be released with appropriate redactions.
'Given the disagreement between the two chairmen of the Investigatory and Adjudicatory Chambers of the Ethics Committee and to ensure complete transparency, we believe the full report ... should be made public as soon as possible," the two said in a joint statement.
Eckert refused to identify any FIFA voters placed under suspicion by Garcia and praised FIFA President Sepp Blatter, while omitting pointed criticisms in the investigation files.
What wrongdoing had occurred, Eckert said, did not impair the integrity of voting in 2010 by an often-discredited FIFA executive committee.
"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 in a statement released by his law firm. "I intend to appeal this decision to the FIFA Appeal Committee."
Garcia had called for key details of his investigation to be published. That provoked clashes with Blatter, who has helped protect the privacy of his boardroom colleagues implicated in seeking favours.
Garcia's sealed report criticizes a culture of entitlement at FIFA and the quality of Blatter's leadership, an official familiar with Garcia's findings told The Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the dossier is supposed to be confidential.
Garcia could be suspended by FIFA if he publicly reveals details of the case, and removed from office when the 209 member associations meet at their congress next May 29. On that same day, Blatter is expected to be elected to a fifth term.
Eckert's report seemed to confirm that the 2022 World Cup would definitely be played in Qatar — though exactly when is still unclear as FIFA seeks an alternative to the desert heat in June and July. Qatar has also come under scrutiny for its treatment of foreign labourers.
"FIFA welcomes the fact that a degree of closure has been reached," the governing body said. "As such, FIFA looks forward to continuing the preparations for Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022, which are already well underway."
Closure seems a long way off in an investigation which could take FIFA and some of its officials into sports courts into 2016.
Eckert saw no proof of bribes or voting pacts in a probe hampered by unco-operative witnesses and a lack of access to evidence.
"The evaluation of the 2018/2022 FIFA World Cups bidding process is closed for the FIFA Ethics Committee," the German judge wrote in his FIFA statement.
Both host countries, however, 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.
Eckert played down previously reported Qatari payments which raised suspicion: Buying exclusive campaigning rights to an African football meeting in Angola, and a wealthy individual who lured Argentina and Brazil to play a match in Doha.
Russia's bid conduct was barely criticized, though Garcia's team had little material to work with.
Computers leased for use by Russia staffers were later destroyed, and bid officials said email accounts could not be accessed despite requests to Google.
Asked Thursday if Russia had co-operated fully, bid CEO Alexei Sorokin said: "Yes, we did. We think we did our best."
Eckert condemned England for wooing disgraced former FIFA vice-president Jack Warner and "damaging the image of FIFA and the bidding process."
The corruption case is still open for past and current members of FIFA's ruling board, but it is unclear who might be targeted.