By Paul Gardner
One of the oldest of the many idiocies that infest soccer is the one that says that if you work hard and everyone likes you, you should always be rewarded with the prize.
There’s this World Cup business, for a start. It does not seem right to both England and the USA that they had a totally committed bunch of people who slaved night and day to produce great bids -- and then ended up with nothing. My sympathy to both bid committees -- but not too much sympathy. Anyone who enters a competitive bidding process knows damn well, right from the start, that there’s a strong chance they will end up empty-handed. I assume they accept that risk.
So, despite England and the USA being all around good guys who worked hard and honestly at their task, I see no great reason for maudlin concern when it didn’t work out.
Congratulations to Russia. And congratulations, only less so, to Qatar. As it happens, though I believe the USA must quickly put the defeat behind it, I do think that it has cause to feel aggrieved. There is a huge difference between awarding the World Cup to Russia, and awarding it to Qatar. Russia has long been among the top soccer nations in the world. It has staged many important soccer events; its national team has won (as the USSR) Olympic titles and Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups, and a European Championship, its clubs have won European titles, its players have won European player of the year awards.
Russia/USSR, then, has a strong tradition of involvement at the center of soccer activities. And Qatar? Nothing, absolutely nothing. Never won anything, never produced a top player or a top club, never staged a FIFA tournament. It has a national team that is currently ranked 113th in the world. By FIFA.
You can then, make out a case that Russia has contributed enough to the world game to deserve its chance to stage the World Cup. By the same measure, it is abundantly clear that giving the World Cup to Qatar is a monster joke.
And so it would be ... except that we are now asked to consider another factor: FIFA’s desire to spread the boundaries of the already worldwide sport, to take the World Cup to an area where it has never before been: the Middle East.
“What is wrong with that?” asks an embattled-sounding Sepp Blatter, who has now to defend the vote of his executive committee. Not too much. As an aim that attempts to link up the Middle East have-nots with the (mostly) European haves, it is a splendid idea -- though I think a lot of us might have considerable trouble trying to line up Qatar as a have-not nation.
But there is a problem, nonetheless. If seeking to take the World Cup to hitherto unexplored areas is to be one of the criteria by which the merits of the bids are assessed, then that fact has to be made clear before things begin -- I do not mean before the voting begins, I mean before the business of preparing a bid begins.
Particularly because this is a very special criterion. All the other factors -- stadiums, hotels and so on -- can be worked on, can be built or improved. But being, or not being, new soccer territory is a hard fact, something that cannot be altered. Had the USA known beforehand that exploring new countries was to be a specific advantage for a bidder (never mind, as it apparently turned out, the specific advantage) can there be any doubt that the USA would have considered it plain dumb to enter a process where the fact that it had already staged a very successful World Cup (in 1994), far from being the advantage it was assumed to be, was suddenly transformed into a huge and inescapable negative?
The same reasoning applies to Japan and South Korea, though not to Australia. What happened to Australia, in fact, makes a mockery of what I have just outlined. Because Australia, as much virgin World Cup territory as Qatar, managed to get only one vote.
Leaving one to wonder, with solid reason, whether all the talk about new frontiers has any truth at all to it. If going somewhere new was the over-riding factor in this voting, then surely the voting should have been a struggle between Qatar and Australia? A confrontation that never came close to happening.
So -- why Qatar? Blatter has not been helping to create understanding with his seriously divisive remarks suggesting envy and hostility on the part of Christian countries toward the Islamic Middle East.
It seems pretty clear by now that Blatter is finding it difficult to mount a strong argument for the Qatar vote. He is not convincing because he is failing to address the main concern of the critics -- namely that Qatar’s lavish spending during the bid process was the key ingredient.
That seems likely. It does not have to be illegal spending. There are plenty of ways of spreading largesse around that are all above board. And, let’s face it, with Qatar’s bid totally lacking in any soccer merit, with huge questions being asked about the summer heat, money was not simply the main plank of Qatar’s bid, it was the only plank the Qataris had.
Until, that is, we learned -- after the voting -- that 14 of FIFA’s voters had voted in a pioneering spirit. A spirit that made any consideration of the technical merits of the USA’s bid irrelevant. Forget all about the stadiums, the hotels, the transport, the security, the structural efficiency, the enthusiastic sponsors, in short forget about most of the stuff that FIFA itself demands -- in great detail, often with government guarantees -- of any bid document.
When voting time comes around for 2026, the criteria will need to be much more clearly defined. If exploring new venues is by then enshrined among the criteria, and if China decides to enter the bidding, why would any other nation even bother?
The obvious way to avoid the problem is to revert to the continental rotation system that FIFA once had in place, but decided to abandon. Had that system still been in operation, bidding for the 2022 World Cup would have been limited to Concacaf nations, and the USA would probably have been the only candidate.
None of what I’ve written above says that Qatar cannot stage a great World Cup, though the suggestions that it might share some games with neighboring countries (a Blatterism, that one) or play the tournament in the European winter, suggest that not everyone is convinced that Qatar is a suitable venue.
But the fact remains that the goal posts were massively shifted during the voting process for 2022. For all Blatter’s protestations about honesty and transparency, that is no way to organize a crucial vote. The way is open for a 2026 World Cup final in Reykjavik -- once Iceland discovers that it possesses untold natural gas riches.