This harsh desert landscape is clearly no place for civilized people! (via upload.wikimedia.org)
We learned earlier today which countries will be hosting the World Cup in 2018 and 2022, and it's probably fair to say that the reaction in the English speaking world has not been especially pretty. That's understandable; England and the United States seemed like slam-dunk bids as little as a month ago and though the momentum had cooled going into the announcement both were seen by many as the most likely choices. That obviously didn't turn out to be the case though, and it wasn't especially close. England didn't make it through the first round of voting and the US was only one vote away from the same fate. Russia and Qatar won the hosting rights and they won them soundly, sending a fairly clear message that FIFA are serious about bringing the competition to new markets, expanding the reach of the game and inviting elements of the international community that have often been shut out into the fold. Right?
Okay, perhaps not. Because if the reaction at-large is to be believed, this was purely about money, power and influence. It's about the corruption of FIFA and the willingness of the voting members to accept bribes. Purely a black and white (and green, if you wish) issue. And while I'm realistic enough to understand that FIFA is in fact corrupt, horribly corrupt most likely, I am also not naive enough to think that the bid committees representing the England and US efforts are above indulging in such behavior. Those in control of the FA and the USSF are not ignorant neophytes; they're aware of how the game is played and if they didn't believe that their bids were competitve they would not have progressed as far as they did. And if I am to be completely honest, Americans complaining about the influence of money in a situation such as this is at best laughable and at worst patently offense. Many people are reacting as though there are no legitimate reasons for the decision to award Qatar and (to a lesser extent Russia) the World Cup, and that's quite simply false.
Let's start with 2018. In addition to England and Russia were two dual bids, one from Spain and Portugal, the other from Belgium and the Netherlands. Notice the big difference, right off the bat? Russia is the only host site not located in Western Europe. For the majority of its history the World Cup has been held in the same general locales and typically hosted by a contemporary world power. That's been changing for a while. Within the past twenty years we've seen the World Cup land in the United States, Japan/South Korea and South Africa. FIFA have made it clear that holding the competition in new and emerging markets is a priority for them, and though they were in many ways bound to awarding the 2018 tournament to a UEFA country it should surprise no one that they did not award it to a nation in the western portion of the continent. When you consider the additional fact that FIFA has gone on record as saying that they are generally opposed to the idea of dual hosts after the logistic difficulties experienced in 2002 and it becomes apparent that there were really only two horses in this race from the beginning.
I'll be forthright in saying that I was hoping to see England win the bid. They invented the game after all, yet they are the only of the traditional European powers to host the World Cup only once, that coming nearly 45 years ago. England has the infrastructure, the support, the history and the passion to make tremendous hosts and from what I saw of their bid I found it to be rather impressive. There were selfish reasons as well; I've wanted to visit England for quite some time. What better excuse could I possibly have? With all that said, Russia is a perfectly defensible choice. They certainly have the venues and the transportation network. They've demonstrated that they are capable of hosting large-scale international sporting events on numerous occasions in the past. Their national team is ranked #13 by FIFA and their professional league is one of, if not the, best outside of UEFA's Big 5. Football might not be as popular in Russia as it is in England but it's still their number one professional sport and during the Soviet era Russian clubs were often among the best in Europe. I understand the disappointment the English have in not winning hosting rights and to some extent I share in it, but let's be fair; Russia is a country with a long and proud football tradition and they are located in a part of Europe that's never hosted the World Cup. This just isn't that bad of a decision at all, and to be honest after the initial disappointment wore off I began trying to determine how the difference in cost between a trip to England and a trip to Russia.
Qatar is a different matter. It's a tiny, tiny country, slightly larger than Pennsylvania in terms of square mileage and a population that is roughly on-par with that of Phoenix, AZ. Their top-division professional league contains all of six teams. Their national team is currently ranked 113th (out of 203) and has never qualified for a World Cup. The average temperature In July is 115°F/46°C. The bid put together was impressive, but largely theoretical; much of the technology required to make it feasible (air conditioned stadia for one example) does not actually exist at the present time. Mentioned more often than anything are the political and social differences between Qatar and much of the rest of the world, and while I do not necessarily think that this is the best forum to debate those issues I will admit that I do share a number of those concerns. It is however important to note that Qatar is one of the more socially progressive countries in the Middle East and while their human rights record should not be ignored by any stretch, it is important to view things in their proper context.
And that's the most important thing of all in this case; context. FIFA sees the Arab world as an area deserving of hosting a World Cup. Qatar was not necessarily chosen on its own merits but because it is a relatively progressive, stable, centrally located Middle Eastern nation with a well-organized, ambitious and ultimately impressive bid. I want to be clear; I do not think FIFA made the correct choice in this instance. Not in the least. Of the bids in contention, I'd say Qatar's was at best the third most deserving. Though Australia's bid was likely the weakest of the top three, they've never hosted and has made tremendous strides in terms of increasing the popularity of the sport over the past few years. The United States bid was likely the strongest (and by some measure) in terms of the overall package (removing external factors such as FIFA's desire to hold a World Cup in the Mid-East) and the explosion of the game post-1994 is exactly what the organization's international governing body had to have hoped for when the US was awarded the competition nearly two decades ago. And Qatar's bid does carry baggage that the others do no, that much is certain. But there are compelling reasons not to award the competition to the either the US or Australia, be they the Aussie's seeming lack of preparation or the fact that the US would become only the fifth (sixth if you wish to include 2014's hosts Brazil) nation to have a World Cup played on its soil on two occasions, a fact that would not necessarily be in balance with America's historical role in and relationship with the game.
I have some very deep and grave concerns with Qatar's ability to successfully host this competition and doubts that they even deserve to do so. Key elements of their bid are so fantastic and audacious that I am skeptical that we will see them in 2022, at least in the form in which they were presented. There are unique security concerns. It's really, really, really hot. I think there's a legitimate chance (much higher in Qatar than in the US or Australia) that something goes very wrong. Not catastrophe-level necessarily, but badly. But what if it doesn't? What if the entire thing goes off without a hitch? Can you imagine how important that could end up being, on multiple fronts? That's the key. It's not about money, not completely. Palms were going to be greased and people were going to make an obscene amount of money no matter what the case. FIFA is corrupt to some extent, of that there is little doubt. But they're corrupt from top-to-bottom. No one is 'clean', at least not entirely.
The decision to hold the World Cup in places like South Africa, Russia and Qatar is instead largely about legacy and to at least some extent the egos of those making the decision. They see it as a tremendous accomplishment, and assuming it goes well it really is. So they are willing to ignore a certain amount of risk (and at times that amount is tremendous) in order to make a splash. Everyone knows that England, the United States or Spain can host a successful World Cup; where's the challenge? But Qatar-that's something special. That pops. And to be fair, there is genuine good that can come of it. True to form though, many have resorted to racism, jingoism, ignorance and claims that Russia and Qatar 'bought' the World Cup (because as we all know, The United States of America has never used it's financial power and influence to earn favors for itself.) We could be having a genuine, productive and interesting conversation about all of this right now, but we're not. And we're not, because so many have chosen to take the easy way out. And that's a shame. But it's not really a surprise.