By Paul Gardner
Yet again we find ourselves confronted with a massive soccer drama that, truth be told, has very little to do with the sport itself.
The scene is Zurich. All those important executives from FIFA are there -- the members of the Executive Committee, the ones who will be voting to decide which countries get to host the 2018 and the 2022 world cups.
Twenty-two guys who will be casting their votes without giving the slightest thought about what the soccer to be played at those two tournaments will look like. Casting their votes for a whole variety of reasons, not one of which depends on any sort of analysis, or even appreciation, of the sport itself.
Given the publicity surrounding the scandals and rumors that have already enveloped this voting procedure, it’s hardly necessary to underline that some of these vital votes (well -- who knows? -- it could even be a majority of them) will be cast for reasons that have little to do with the merits of the bids.
Now -- that’s an easy sentence to write, and it seems to expose a fatal flaw in the voting. But does it? First of all, how does one measure the merits of a bid? A “consulting” company engaged by FIFA has tried to do this, rating each bid in five key categories -- those of sponsorship, ticketing, hospitality, licensing and media rights.
The USA simply wiped out its opponents for 2022, recording a perfect 100 score -- with Japan limping in a distant second on 73.
You’ll have noticed that all five of those key categories have to do with making money, they are all “income streams.” No soccer involvement. Of course, not ... and there will be none. The stadiums? These massive, state of the art modern wonders, are our 21st century equivalent of medieval cathedrals.
Where cathedrals used to take decades to build, we can put up a lovely stadium in a couple of years, no problem.
No one has ever told me that prayers offered in a glittering cathedral are better, or worth more, than prayers offered in a humble village church. And no one is even bothering to wonder whether whizz-bang stadiums produce better soccer.
No one cares. We can now say, with some certainty, what we suspected all along -- that the 2010 World Cup, the one we’ve just experienced in South Africa, was a politically motivated event that turned out to be good for South Africa. That is so, even though the South African team bombed out in the first round, the first host team in 19 World Cups that has failed to advance to the second round.
If you want a measure of how little the soccer itself is now seen to be of any consequence, there you have it. FIFA itself, the organizers, plus all the sponsors and the advertisers and the politicians and the celebrities and the groupies and the hangers-on, got lucky. The soccer itself was saved from being totally forgettable by the presence and the performance of Spain.
Which enables FIFA, which is supposed to be an organization devoted to the betterment of the sport, to briefly forget its money-making activities and its wider self-acclaimed role of making the world a better place to live in, and to make out that the soccer part of things was just fine -- after all, look at Spain!
What I’m hinting at here, is of course not possible. There can be no way, in this assessing and bidding process, to take into account what the difference between playing soccer in Japan or Qatar might be. If there is any difference. The suffocating heat of Qatar sounds forbidding, but the wonders of air-conditioned stadiums and training facilities make it a non-factor.
Not that long ago, the experts were convinced that there could be highly important differences. Altitude was considered a major problem. Which meant Mexico would not be chosen as a World Cup venue. Of course, Mexico was chosen, in 1970. And what happened to the altitude problem? Let’s just point out that the 1970 tournament -- and its Mexico repeat in 1986 -- were two of the best World Cups ever in terms of the soccer played.
The USA could present a problem, though, with the huge distances teams have to cover between east and west coast venues. But that also turned into a non-problem in the 1994 tournament. All of which leaves little or nothing of any sporting value, of any intrinsic soccer importance, to be considered by the ExCo members when they decide how to vote.
There is the legacy thing, but that is something that is really very difficult to define. After the 1994 World Cup, the legacy -- we are led to believe -- was the creation of MLS. Maybe. But it seems likely that momentum was building up for a pro league even without the interest created by the tournament. So who knows?
What, for instance, would be Qatar’s legacy? A rather extraordinary one was suggested (I hardly need to add that it has nothing to do with the actual kicking of soccer balls). The eight new air-conditioned stadiums (so new that they have yet to be built) will use solar power and could be dismantled and transported for use by poorer nations after the tournament.
And so on. We get further and further away from the game itself, off into the realms if sci-fi and high-fi(nance). Can rounding up an impressive posse of sponsors, or harnessing sunlight, or -- to mention a FIFA favorite -- bending the visa and tax laws -- really be the criteria that matter for a soccer tournament?
Yes, they can. What concerns me is that I just don’t see how these 22 ExCo members can possibly be expert enough in these highly complicated and diverse fields to cast intelligent votes. By intelligent, I mean a vote that takes into consideration the welfare of the game itself, not simply its finances or its politics.
I have suggested before that the names of approved candidate countries be drawn from a hat. A random draw (as opposed to the current method, which looks more like a blind vote) in which making an “intelligent” selection plays no part in the process. So we’re back where we started, with a host nation decided in ignorance. Except that a draw would - one hopes -- do away with the possibilities of collusion and corruption.
In the meantime, allowing for the technical intricacies and the vagaries and the uncertainties and the illogicalities of the criteria involved, to say nothing of the follies of the voters themselves, I can now give you my predictions for Thursday’s voting: 2018 -- expect the winner to come from Russia, England, Spain/Portugal or Netherlands/Belgium. While the 2022 winner will be either Australia or Qatar or Japan. Or South Korea. Or the USA.
I think that covers everything. Now to sit back and marvel at this most vital, most ridiculous, and possibly most dubious, of events.