Over the past few weeks, England has been torn apart and sharply divided by political unrest. Prime Minister David Cameron’s aggressively conservative budget cuts and attempts to reduce the country’s deficit have led to thousands of students protesting (sometimes violently) throughout the streets of London. However, this past Thursday, the country stopped its political infighting to unite against a common enemy, one more dreadful to the English then even the prospect of tax hikes — Sepp Blatter.
For those of you who don’t know, Sepp Blatter is the president of FIFA, the international governing body of soccer and the organization responsible for hosting the world’s premier sporting event, the World Cup. This week, the organization voted on which countries would have the privilege of hosting the 2018 and 2022 cups. England sent a delegation to lobby for the 2018 cup that included Prince William and David Beckham. The Unites States sent a similar delegation to fight for the right to host the 2022 cup, a delegation that included Morgan Freeman and former president Bill Clinton. Both England and the Unites States were the favorites to win their respective bids. Then the news hit Thursday that neither country had been successful — and that Russia had won the 2018 bid and some place called Qatar had won the 2022 bid.
Even before the vote and announcement, allegations of vote fixing began to arise. The politics of how FIFA chooses these event locations is messy at best. FIFA’s 24-man executive committee votes on the proposed sites in a multi-round format. However, allegations of committee members selling their votes caused FIFA to suspend two members of the committee, leaving only 22. During each round of voting, the country with the lowest amount of votes is eliminated until one country holds a majority. Russia won a majority in the first round of voting and was immediately selected. It took 4 rounds for Qatar to win the bid, and it beat out the Unites States in the fourth round of voting 14-8.
Whether or not the vote was fixed is up for debate — and with Vladimir Putin involved anything is possible. What is clear, though, is that there are serious flaws in this election system. FIFA is an organization compromised of over 208 countries, yet only 22 have a voice in selecting the site for the World Cup. Not only is this an unfair system, but it makes it far too easy for vote-fixing to occur, as only a few committee members need to be bought off before a majority is held. Furthermore, Blatter’s personal preference appears to hold too much sway over the committee, as it was common knowledge before the voting that he supported Russia and Qatar’s bid. FIFA needs to review its selection process and work out a system that is fair and less susceptible to fraud.
But the choices have been made and now the world has to deal with them. In some ways, Russia is not an illogical choice to host the cup. England will always love soccer, whether or not it hosts the World Cup. However, Russia hosting the cup will boost the soccer infrastructure in the country by creating new facilities and stadiums. It will help FIFA tap into the country’s vast talent pool and will help establish FIFA as a media entity. Politically, the move shows confidence in the former Soviet Union, and this cup will mark the first time the World Cup will be hosted by an Eastern European country.
However, having the cup in Qatar is, in short, a big mistake. The country has a population of just over 1.6 million people, no soccer stadiums big enough to host a World Cup game, and in late June (the time of year the cup normally starts) boasts an average temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The country does not at the moment have enough hotel space, any public forms of transportation, or an airport big enough to support the huge influx of foreign visitors that will invade the country during the month long tournament.
Furthermore, concerns have arisen as to what the effect of having 400,000 drunken foreign visitors will be to a country that is still a relatively closed-off Islamic nation. Politically, the move may make sense — the entire Arab world (and all of its oil money) was behind the bid to host the cup in Qatar — as it will mark the first time an Arab nation will host a World Cup. In the long term, Blatter is hoping the 2022 cup will open up further opportunities for FIFA in the Middle East.
Nevertheless, the Unites States should not have been forgotten in the equation. There are over 300 million people in the Unites States, most of which is still an untapped soccer market. The sport’s popularity is growing by leaps and bounds, MLS attendance and TV ratings continue to rise, and the U.S. national team continues to be successful in trying to establish itself as one of the elite national teams. The country’s premier sports leagues, the NBA and NFL, are both set to go into lockouts and there will be a huge opportunity for soccer to fill the void they leave. By having the Unites States host the cup, FIFA would boost enthusiasm and investment in soccer in America.
FIFA passed on a real opportunity to give the Unites States Soccer Federation the final weapon it needed in its attempt to cement soccer as a premier sport in America. Blatter and his cronies decided to take a huge risk with Qatar, instead of what was a sure return on investment in America. In 2022, the future of international soccer will still be in the United States — unfortunately, the soccer world will be melting in the hot sun of Qatar, still trying to find a hotel room.
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