Picture soccer fans partying where tanks and missiles paraded on Red Square in the Cold War’s darkest days. Imagine high-tech air-conditioned stadiums chilled so players and spectators don’t keel over in the sweltering desert heat of the Middle East.
For all the allegations of corruption and rigged voting that have been leveled lately against FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, the much-maligned group certainly has a taste for adventure.
In taking the World Cup to the uncharted lands of Russia in 2018 and tiny but oil-wealthy Qatar in 2022, FIFA like the International Olympic Committee is leading the charge for the argument that sports can reshape history and influence the destinies and the way people and nations are seen by the rest of the world.
FIFA could have played it safe by going to the ready-built stadiums of the United States or to the sport’s motherland of England. Both promised minimal worry and lots of cash. But the desire of FIFA’s all-powerful, 74-year-old president, Sepp Blatter, to carry soccer and its considerable influence to promising and largely untapped markets won the day.”We go to new lands,” said Blatter, who next June will seek another four-year presidential term.
In doing so, FIFA is marching in lockstep with the Olympics, which went to China for the first time in 2008, celebrating the U-turn over one generation from Maoism to frontier capitalism in the world’s most populous country. The IOC is now preparing for the first Olympics in South America, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, rewarding Brazil’s emergence as a major power. FIFA, meanwhile, is still basking in the praise it won for taking the World Cup to Africa for the first time in June, where vuvuzela-blowing black and white South Africans demonstrated how far they have moved on from apartheid.
Russia and Qatar are not without risk for FIFA although with reserves of $1 billion and the sport wealthier and more popular than ever, it can afford a gamble or two.
In awarding two World Cups at the same time, FIFA aims to give itself more stable and long-term revenues from the tournament that underpins its wealth. It also means Blatter’s influence will outlive his presidency. But it also leaves him and the 21 other VIPs on FIFA’s executive committee open to suspicions that bidding nations might have colluded to secure their votes. The committee members voted behind closed doors and were furiously lobbied by statesmen, sheiks, sports stars and Britain’s Prince William, who tossed in a joke about his upcoming wedding.
Russia, already spending massively on the Sochi Winter Olympics it will host in 2014, now has the added and greater challenge of readying airports, modern stadiums, trains and other public works it will need not only to host 32 football teams and millions of visitors but also to transport them efficiently from cities spread from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Ural Mountains that form the European boundary with Asia.
This will mark the first time the world’s largest country, or even Eastern Europe, has organized a World Cup, a fact its team of lobbyists used to tweak FIFA voters’ consciences.
Qatar, with a population of 841,000, has not only never hosted a World Cup but not even played in one. FIFA inspectors who toured the country, which is half the size of Israel and slightly smaller than Connecticut, cautioned that the intense heat in summer, when the tournament will be played, posed a potential health risk for players and fans.
Qatar allayed the fears of some but not all FIFA voters by promising that stadiums, training venues and areas for fans to party will be cooled with solar-powered air conditioning. But it has yet to be proven that the technology will work on such a broad scale, which prompted the American on FIFA’s committee, Chuck Blazer, to quip: “I don’t see how you can air-condition an entire country.”
The United States presented no such challenges with its bid for 2022. With plans for matches in existing stadiums, it could have hosted the World Cup now. It did in 1994. Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman was among those who worked FIFA’s corridors of power for the U.S. bid, hanging out into the night before the vote in the carpeted state room of the hotel where executive members stayed.
Former President Bill Clinton shared a personal memory with FIFA voters of watching his daughter, Chelsea, play soccer as a kid. But U.S. star power and promises of record profits and ticket sales couldn’t match the novelty of Qatar and the prospect for FIFA of its first World Cup in the Middle East. With other 2022 bidders Australia, Japan and South Korea eliminated in earlier rounds, Qatar beat the United States in the final vote 14-8. Chicago also lost the 2016 Olympics to the new frontier of Rio when the IOC voted in October 2009.
“If that’s what’s going to resonate, it would be good if everyone would let us know,” said the disappointed chairman of the U.S. bid, U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati.
Landon Donovan, the midfielder whose game-winning goal against Algeria spared the United States early elimination from this year’s World Cup, was more understanding.
“When you hear President Blatter talk about his goals, he wants to spread soccer around the world. And you can’t begrudge him that. You have to commend him for that, and these two decisions will certainly do that,” Donovan said.
He added that he expects Qatar’s heat-beating technology to work.
“I grew up in the desert, in California, and running in 100-degree heat was miserable and at times dangerous,” he said. “I’m sure it’s not cheap, the technology to do that, but I can’t imagine after all they put into this bid that they are not going to follow through and make sure that the World Cup is run very well.”
At malls in Doha, people gathered at electronic shops to watch the voting on television. There were roars when Blatter pulled “Qatar” out of the envelope. Qataris and others including workers from south Asia immediately started dancing in the streets along Doha’s Gulf waterfront, some blowing vuvuzelas that provided the droning soundtrack to South Africa’s World Cup.
Qatar is promising to spend $50 billion on infrastructure upgrades and $4 billion to build nine stadiums and renovate three others. It also is promising more sports for women in contrast to the hostility shown to female athletes in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The Qatari bid chairman, Sheik Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani, said he hopes its World Cup can change the “wrong perception” that women are oppressed in the Middle East.
Russia comfortably beat England and joint bids from Spain-Portugal and Belgium-Netherlands for 2018. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin immediately hopped on a plane to Zurich, having earlier opted not to join the last-minute lobbying efforts.
Putin had said he didn’t want to pressure FIFA’s committee members, who, ahead of their vote, faced intense media scrutiny about alleged corruption and vote-trading. FIFA suspended two committee members for ethics rule-violations, leaving 22 voters. Putin may have won some over in taking their side against what he called a “clear” smear campaign.