It’s not so much that it is those particular countries were selected; all of the remaining bids had merit (yes, even Qatar). It is more the opaque manner in which FIFA has conducted the bidding process, and the culture of an organization which is less “For the good of the game” – as it claims – than in favor of extremely large lunches and brown paper envelopes stuffed with money.
First, a bit of background. Traditionally, the World Cup has been awarded about 7 or 8 years in advance. For example, South Africa was given the 2010 tournament in 2002. This cycle was the first occasion on which two tournaments have been awarded at the same time. The reasons for this haven’t been made entirely clear, but surely it can be no coincidence that Sepp Blatter is up for re-election as FIFA president next year – he can almost certainly count on Qatar and Russia’s votes now.
Obviously, coverage in the States has been focused mainly on the failure of the US bid. I’m not going to rake those coals again, as much of what has been on my mind has already been said – instead I’m going to concentrate on the 2018 voting, and the long-term ramifications for FIFA.
The real surprise in the 2018 contest was that England got eliminated first. In the first round of voting, they garnered only 2 votes (apparently Geoff Thompson, the FA representative, plus Issa Hayatou of Cameroon). The English strategy had been to court both Trinidadian Jack Warner (of CONCACAF) and the Egyptian member, Hany Abo Rida, by parading the England national team in both countries, like performing bears dragged around on a length of chain. It was expected that Warner would bring his ‘block’ of 3 votes in favor of England, but obviously this did not happen, the potential reasons for which will be explained.
England had a very strong bid. The Premier League is the most watched league in the world, they can pretty much guarantee a full house at every game, most of the stadia are already built, it’s quite a small country, and there is the political will to improve the areas that would have needed work (particularly a struggling transportation system). The emotional pull that comes from being “the birthplace of football” is probably felt much less strongly in places other than England, but even so, it was a bid that had been well thought out and was rightly (I thought) considered one of the favorites for most of the campaign cycle. Furthermore, the presentation that was done on the day seemed to be the best of all of the 2018 candidates.
With only 2 votes, though, it appears that the FIFA Executive Committee was punishing the country for its recent exposés of the high level corruption within the organization. Briefly –because you’d have to have been living a deep hole not to know this; first, a Sunday Times investigation revealed that 2 ExCo members were accepting bribes in return for their votes, and then a BBC documentary that only aired on Monday evening exposed other alleged corruption, including suggestions that Jack Warner had re-sold World Cup tickets for personal profit.
It is obviously also worth remembering that there were two other bidders for 2018 – Spain/Portugal, and Holland/Belgium. In truth I’d have been surprised if either of these bids had won, because following the Japan/South Korea 2002 World Cup, FIFA suggested that joint bids would not be looked on very favorably in future. Even so, these bids were interesting, especially the Iberian bid. Spain is currently the world’s best national team, boasting some of the most iconic stadia in the world, and it would have been a fitting place to host the tournament – even it meant having Portugal ride their coat-tails – and they can justifiably also ask questions as to how the voting only lasted 2 rounds, rather than the expected 4.
However, now that the two events have been awarded to countries whose technical reports suggested large potential problems (extreme temperatures in Qatar, large distance and travel concerns in Russia), you have to start questioning the motives of FIFA and the system that they use to award the world cup.
Mind you, there’s really no point in complaining about FIFA being a bunch of corrupt carpetbaggers. You might as well buy an alligator as a pet and then complain when it eats the hamster. They are just doing what FIFA does, and what FIFA has pretty much always done; and that is the real problem.
The structure of FIFA is designed to ensure that the maximum amount of power is in the minimum number of hands. There are 208 member nations but only 25 people are allowed to have a say in the destiny of the world biggest single sporting event. This is a system almost designed to encourage corruption and collusion. Imagine if FIFA was a government. It would be like having more than 200 members of Congress (or Parliament) and only allowing 20 or so of those people to actually decide anything. Admittedly, FIFA does not have to be a democracy, technically, because it isn’t a governmental organization, but when it claims to be free of corruption it is – at best – misguided. At worst this would be a downright lie.
There is no earthly reason that each of the 208 member federations should not get a vote on where the World Cup is held. They should be given technical reports, they can visit the countries concerned (at FIFA’s expense, not the bidding country’s), they can even attend the presentations, and then they can make a reasonably informed decision on who should be awarded the tournament.
How likely is this to ever happen? As things stand right now, pretty damn unlikely. Those at the top (the existing ExCo) clearly love the power that they have. They want to make the world dance to their tune, and led by Bribemaster-In-Chief Sepp Blatter, this rampant self-interest is not going to result in any change. The only way that any long-term change can be effected is by making the environment so hostile that it becomes easier to change than to keep the status quo.
So how can that be done? Well, call me idealistic, but a free press can help. Although the British media has had many accusations leveled at it (some of them fair, some not), it is the duty of any media to expose corruption if it happens to exist. One of the most depressing reactions from FIFA has not been that some members appear to be open for ‘inducements’, but that they react so badly when it is shown to them. A responsible organization would reply with a carefully worded statement, essentially accepting that there are things that could improve, and then make real efforts to make it happen. Instead, FIFA retorts that “England have crossed the line”, something that probably would have been helpful to have noticed back in June.
It is really simple – if you don’t want newspapers and television programs revealing how corrupt you are, don’t be corrupt!
This evening, the acting Chairman of the Football Association said that he would not be seeking the job on a permanent basis because he “does not want to have to work with people that he cannot trust”. Doubtless FIFA are not that bothered by this revelation, focused as they are on taking the World Cup to new markets. Surely, though, they need to be aware that if the perception of dishonesty continues, the international game will suffer, to the ultimate detriment of FIFA itself; if the quality of the (and yes, I hate this word) “product” diminishes much further, those blue riband sponsors that FIFA worked so hard to sell out to will think twice about renewing their lucrative contracts.
The club game (especially in Europe) has been growing to such an extent that many fans (and arguably, players) are starting to see the international version as an irrelevancy. Personally, I think that this would be a shame, because in my experience nothing unites a country as much as a good performance from the national team in an international tournament.
There have been some suggestions – not entirely tongue-in-cheek – that a ‘splinter’ governing body be set up, to compete with FIFA and hold a mirror up to their practices. I don’t believe to be a good option, simply because FIFA has amassed so much power as to make a new body unworkable. Surely the only way to do that is to attempt to change the organizational culture from within, and that has to start at the top. If Sepp Blatter is re-elected as FIFA president next year, it would send a very clear signal that the status quo is what FIFA members want to maintain, and that they have very little respect for the perception and improvement of the game they claim to serve. With pressure from the proper areas – the media, the more powerful national associations – getting rid of Blatter could be the first step in turning FIFA around, no matter what the ‘legacy’ that the world cups awarded in his tenure could be.
(failing that, we get rid of every ExCo member and start again, possibly by photoshopping pictures of them doing questionable acts to each other and emailing them to Doha, thus ensuring that they’ll get shoved in jail next time they visit.)
In the meantime, we should get behind both the Russian and Qatari tournaments. It sucks that the events will not be held in our preferred country (and, speaking as an Englishman, we really needed to not have to qualify!), but it is still soccer that we love, not the political machinations, and that would be the same no matter how far away the World Cup is, or how early we’ll have to get up to watch it.