By Paul Gardner
The idea -- somewhat strange at first, admittedly -- of an air-conditioned World Cup held in a tiny little Middle East country which, you can be sure of this, most people would have difficulty locating with any certainty, begins to sink in. I mean ... Qatar?
Like it or not, that’s what the world is going to get in 2022. Instead of the super-organized and thoroughly businesslike trouble-free World Cup that the Americans would have undoubtedly organized.
You can tell, from the stories that continue to surface about corruption and the overall media response among what I’ll call the soccer powers -- meaning Italy, Spain, Germany, England and France -- that the idea of Qatar has not gone over particularly well.
I see someone in the German press dubbed FIFA’s decision a Qatarstrophe, which is pretty good. President Barack Obama eschewed humor and contented himself with a curt opinion that it was “the wrong decision.” It was not the only “wrong decision” that FIFA made last week -- there was also its choice of Russia, rather than England, as the host country for the 2018 tournament. Prince William -- the “heir to the throne” as the British media keep labeling him in almost hushed tones -- continued the decades-long knack of his family for making everything sound boring, by announcing that he was “extremely disappointed.”
There was a more fiery reaction from Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who has reportedly canceled an offer of free luxury hotel accommodation to FIFA executives at the 2012 London Olympic Games. Take that, Sepp Blatter!
So the whole business is a mess. FIFA’s prestige has been damaged -- probably irreversibly -- by the revelations of corruption and possible vote-trading during the bidding process. In fact, the revelations should definitely result in a change of operating procedure.
As things stand at the moment, the enormous value of the World Cup -- both in monetary and prestige terms -- makes the decision of where to stage it simply too massively heavy a responsibility for the small number of 20-plus FIFA executive committee members to cope with. The vote, in fact, seems almost designed to produce the very problems that have surfaced.
FIFA is -- on the face of it -- a pretty democratic organization. More so than the United Nations, as it happens. The UN -- and the League of Nations before it -- would never have got off the ground had they adopted the totally democratic ideal that all of its members’ votes are equal. That is the system that FIFA professes. In its full Congress, the vote of Vanuatu has the same power as that of Germany or Argentina.
The UN can say the same -- but the UN has another level of power, the Security Council, limited to the world’s superpowers, and those guys have the power of veto over general assembly decisions that they don’t like.
Without that veto power, does anyone believe that the USA would have joined the UN? We have grown used to that setup as, somehow, the natural way. However you look at it, there’s no escaping that it is not particularly democratic, but is simply a reflection of power -- economic and military.
So when the FIFA ExCo -- a small bunch of guys from places like Thailand, Cyprus, Trinidad & Tobago, Cameroon and Egypt -- starts ordering England and the USA around, it’s not surprising that cries of Foul Play! are heard.
But the protests, of course, go deeper than that. They go to the root of the democratic system. It would be much more to the liking of the powerful soccer countries if they could assume control, and arrange matters among themselves. They would, occasionally, grant favors -- and maybe a World Cup or two -- to the lesser tribes, but no way would they allow themselves to lose face by being put through the rigmarole of an elaborate and expensive bidding system -- only to be humiliated at the finishing line by ... well, you know who.
So the questions to be asked are not whether Qatar or Russia can do it -- of course they can, or whether they engaged in unsavory activities to ensure voting support -- who knows?, but (a) can the FIFA voting system be reworked to make it more transparent and less whimsical, and (b) if that is impossible, then what is the alternative?
The answer to (a) seems to me to be quite clearly, No. Any improvements to the current system would have to involve a reduction in the importance of the executive committee members -- maybe even their complete withdrawal from the process. And how likely is that when it is precisely those members who would have to approve the changes?
Which gets us to (b) and the thought that if FIFA cannot be modified, then it will have to be bypassed. We have had an example of this sort of thing, quite recently, in English soccer. The setting up of the immensely successful English Premier League in 1992 was precisely a power-play by the major English clubs that were tired of having to be part of the much larger Football Association, having to obey decisions made by the voting power of over 70 much smaller clubs and -- you can imagine the importance of this factor -- having to share television income among so many clubs.
If as few as half a dozen -- but it would probably need twice that many -- of the world’s top soccer nations told FIFA to go to hell, that they were defecting to form their own super-FIFA, and would run their own World Cup, FIFA would find that its very lucrative cash-cow, the World Cup, was suddenly not worth all that much.
In reality, all that would be needed would probably be simply the threatof such a revolution. The threat of a walkout by Europe’s top club teams very quickly led to UEFA altering the structure of the Champions League ... to favor the top clubs, of course.
At the moment, FIFA is trying -- and has been succeeding -- in getting the best of both worlds. It has been operating as a major international business corporation with a multi-billion dollar turnover. And it also functions as a charity organization that distributes millions of dollars to promote soccer in poor countries. These are not naturally allied roles. FIFA is well aware of that, and its guilt at making so much money is evident in its insistence, during the recent bidding process, that the bidders demonstrate some sort of “legacy” that their staging of the World Cup would entail.
This has been for some time a particular emphasis of FIFA President Sepp Blatter's -- part of his personal, quest, it is believed, for a Nobel Prize. But to anyone who listened to the bid presentations, the legacy aspects had an unreal, even hollow air to them. To imagine that Qatar’s offer to dismantle its special air-conditioned stadiums and donate them to poorer countries could possibly be a deciding factor is to realize how far the bidding process has come off the rails.
FIFA is in serious need of reformation. But a shakeup of the size required will not, cannot, come from within. It will need external pressure -- probably in the form of a breakaway threat from the rich guys.