By Paul Gardner
Of course Sunil Gulati is correct to indicate that politics - FIFA politics - are the key to understanding the voting that gave
the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 version to Qatar - and left the USA out in the cold.
That being the case, one can say with absolute certainty that no one will ever understand
the voting of the FIFA executive committee. A jumble of 24 (or fewer, allowing for suspensions) individuals with who knows how many preferences and prejudices and whims and aversions.
thing for sure - Thursday was not a good day for the English-speaking soccer countries: Australia 1 vote, England 2 votes, and the USA soundly beaten by Qatar. Is there any significance to that
language factor? Again - who knows? There might be. While English is the legally official language of FIFA, it is evidently not the language that holds sway in the FIFA corridors of power.
It has been pretty clear for some time now that the English have not been particularly good at making friends on the international soccer circuit (clear to everyone except the English, that is).
They spent a fortune - over £15 million - and collected just two votes (and one of that pair was from the English ExCo member Geoff Thompson). This was pretty exactly a re-run of what they did
in 2000, when a $15 million bid process also resulted in only two votes.
Nothing has changed there, then - for the English, not even the ridiculous wheeling out of Prince William helped
- a demonstration of obnoxious royal snobbery that may actually have had a negative effect (in which case it got what it deserved).
One might say the same for former president Bill
Clinton’s involvement in the U.S. bid. His boring speech was not one of the highlights of the U.S. presentation.
But it is evidently the accepted wisdom that trundling the big
names forward is what is required. Not soccer names, of course, but really big names from politics or showbiz.
Well, that didn’t work, obviously. David Beckham did better
than any of them. I have not been a great fan of Beckham’s, but his genuine personality, his soccer sincerity, his just plain down-to-earth regular-guy qualities made him a hugely welcome
presence. But FIFA politics didn’t pay any attention to him, either.
Nor were they impressed with Gulati’s meticulously presented catalogue of the financial benefits of an
American World Cup. One can pause to wonder about that. Do the Americans also suffer -- like the English -- from simply being too strong, a situation that antagonizes less fortunate nations? Of
course they do. Beware of Americans bearing gifts probably sums up that attitude quite well.
So, if FIFA politics was not interested in money (can that be right?), or politics, or
royalty, what the hell was it interested in? Simply in doing something different? In taking the World Cup where it had never been before?
Possibly that is the truth of the
matter. And that’s not at all an unworthy aim. We can pause at that point, to lodge an objection - one that once again completely clouds any attempt to understand how this voting worked. OK,
Russia (representing Eastern Europe) and Qatar (representing the Middle East) are new frontiers for the World Cup -- but they also happen to be the two big spenders among the bidders. That is
particularly true of Qatar. Hence the accusation that, in the end, money was all that mattered -- and that Qatar has “bought” the World Cup.
It has. Not in the sense that it
has bribed voters, for we have no reason to doubt the validity of the voting. But Qatar has proved (rather as South Korea did when it money-muscled its way into a share-agreement with Japan for the
2002 tournament) that spending lavishly on the bid process can be made to pay off.
Is there anything reprehensible about “buying” a World Cup? Not that I can see -- and
anyway, even if there were, the ultra-capitalist USA should be last country to complain about it.
I must point out that, as far the details of the Qatar bid go, we’ve been here
before. The Qataris have, at the moment, just three stadiums. Their bid says they will build nine new stadiums. Back in 1988, during another bidding vote, Sepp Blatter (who was then FIFA’s
general secretary) explained why a bid from Morocco had not succeeded ... because, he said, it was all on paper, the Moroccans “presented only two stadiums, beyond that only plans ... the
World Cup is not a development program.” Ironically, the country that won that bidding vote was the USA.
But now the World Cup is a development program. With Qatar doing the
developing, building stadiums (none of them exactly huge -- they all seem to have a maximum capacity of 45,000) for which the country will have little use once the World Cup is over. Hence
Qatar’s remarkable suggestion that it can ship the stadiums off to poorer countries (which means almost anywhere) where the super technology would be of great help. Fanciful? I suppose
so, but it might not seem that way in 2022.
Come to that, no one knows what will be happening, either technologically or politically, in 2022. Not even this strange abstraction
“FIFA politics” can guarantee anything. But to condemn the FIFA decision on that basis makes no sense. The vote, so far as we can see, was an honest vote, if a rather difficult one to
The USA tried its best -- just as England did -- and lost. For the mighty USA to have been beaten, or worse to have been out-spent, by tiny Qatar may prove difficult for some
to digest. But the reasons for the USA’s loss had little to do with the merits of its bid, which I have no reason to doubt, was an excellent one.
The USA lost, I fear, for two
reasons that are easy to identify, but impossible to define. It lost because it is the USA -- a fact that automatically engenders hostility among some who resent its power; and it lost
because it is not Qatar, because it is not in the Middle East, because it represents nothing new. Qatar does mean new challenges -- the same challenges that Morocco wanted take up in 1988.
Morocco was scorned, but Qatar got its timing right.
Well, maybe there is a third reason, one that the USA should be able to understand -- it was out-spent and maybe even out-maneuvered
on the PR front. But I do not believe there could have been success for Qatar without those first two unchangeable facts.
All of which is clever post facto thinking. Obviously,
if the USA had realized all of that beforehand, it would not have bothered to submit a bid.
Did FIFA get this one right? Who knows. In fact, the matter of being either right or wrong will
only be decided after 2022. For the USA there should be no recriminations and no accusations. U.S. Soccer must resist the temptation to subside into a great sulk. The soccer show will go on. It must