Twenty-two men convened in Zurich to seal the fate of the world’s most popular sport for the next dozen years. The preceding weeks and months saw FIFA forced to investigate alleged corruption, the spectre of blatant vote-buying and potential collusion between bids in the two adjoining cycles. It was a risk they knew they would take by selecting hosts for the next two available tournaments.
But FIFA president Sepp Blatter has resolutely been a mouthpiece set to “obfuscate”, obstinately refusing to make the tough but sensible and just decisions a chief executive is hired to make. The vote would go on, amidst worldwide clamor to break up the bidding process. After all, so much money had already been expended by the 2022 candidates that to reverse fortune now would be to slap members in good standing right in the face.
So the two dozen selectors, minus the two convicted corrupt amongst their number, came together at FIFA headquarters to set the schedule for soccer’s biggest showcase into the next decade. They did everything they could to make things look transparent. After all, it was not Spain but Russia that nabbed the 2018 spot that was to be the last awarded to one amongst bidders from a single continent in the old rotational format.
Transparent? What FIFA was trying to do here was as transparent as cellophane. By rejecting the bid of the current world champions, they essentially set up their next move so that they could get on with the real controversy. It took just two rounds for the FIFA panel to declare Russia the host of the 2018 World Cup, England dropped in the first round of voting before Russia secured an absolute majority over the joint bids of Spain/Portugal and Netherlands/Belgium 13-7-2 in the second.
The real travesty wasn’t in Russia winning or the Iberians losing, or even in the snub of the Low Countries. But it directly set the stack for FIFA to vote on 2022 in the manner they seemed to want to all along.
Japan and South Korea, joint hosts back in 2002, were doomed by their separate bids this time around. This was supposed to be a three-way battle between an unusual government-fueled bid by Qatar and the privately-backed might of the American and Australian proposals.
But then the inexplicable happened. Australia was shunted aside in the first round of 2022 voting with a single ballot in their name. Qatar nearly won before the festivities could begin, falling one vote short of absolute majority on the opening round of balloting. It was a stunning turn of events, and now a heads-up winner-take-all stake game was there for the U.S. and Qatari contingents to exploit.
Japan was tossed aside on the second ballot with just two votes, and we nearly saw an even bigger surprise than Australia’s early ouster when the third round saw the Americans barely escape elimination. By this point the votes were aligned 11 for Qatar, 6 for the U.S. and 5 for South Korea.
The head-to-head showdown was set, the 1994 hosts versus the neophyte petro-emirate. Maybe the Americans thought Morgan Freeman could be their Nelson Mandela (he played him in a movie, so he ought to be just as effective as the real man in swaying votes… right?), but neither he nor Bill Clinton were changing FIFA’s mind on this one.
Forget that the governing body had already expressed grave concerns about excessive heat in the Arab country during the season when World Cups are scheduled. With promises of lavish air-conditioned stadiums and the emir’s riches to focus voters’ attention, Qatar landed its majority on the fourth go-around, 14-8 over a more secure framework presented by the Yanks.
The Americans will survive their setback. MLS is still growing, soccer is still on an upswing in this country, and the demographic shift only bolsters the sport’s viewer base on American soil. It remains to be seen whether Qatar can live up to its vast promises that swayed FIFA voters to think with their calculators rather than with a far-sighted view for growing the sport as effectively as possible.
As for FIFA, this is just another blow toward its credibility. Instead of choosing the soundest proposal for its tournament, it chose the one whose money spoke loudest. For an organization already scrutinized this year for its reluctance toward dealing with blatantly poor officiating, its reticence toward even considering goal-line replay, and the bungling way it handled the lead-up investigations to these votes, the choice of Qatar and, in a lesser way, Russia show once again that Sepp Blatter and his cronies are more inclined to think in terms of dollars than sense.