To Russia and Qatar We Go…

By | December 3, 2010

Here are some thoughts about yesterday’s World Cup decision by Steffi Decker, a graduate of Duke and of our Fall 2008 “World Cup and World Politics Class”:

To Russia and Qatar We Go…

This week, the FIFA executive committee convened in the “House of Football” a secretive, lavish and generally ostentatious layer nestled in the heart of Zurich, insulated from the public and out of touch with reality.  FIFA welcomed the nine bid committees vying to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cups – England, United States, Spain/Portugal, Holland/Belgium, Russia, Japan, Australia, South Korea and Qatar.

One by one, each of the nine committees took to the stage to present the their bids, offer a vision for the future of football and tell heart wrenching stories about remarkably well dressed children for whom soccer changed their lives. The event was laden with star power – President Clinton, Landon Donovan, Mia Hamm, Morgan Freeman, Prince William, David Beckham, and dozens of other foreign leaders, heads of state, models, actresses and athletes were all on hand to lend their “credibility” to their respective efforts.

In the end, when the music stopped and the envelopes were opened, Russia and Qatar emerged victorious as the host countries from the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.  As the Russian and Qatar committees popped champagne, (which in theory is illegal in Qatar) the rest of the world muttered in a collective gasp – WTF????

How the hell did Russia and Qatar end up with the World Cup?   How did neither England nor United States win?  Both England and the United States could hold a World Cup tomorrow, complete with all the glitz and glam that FIFA expects and reliably able to deliver billions upon billions in sponsorships, television rights, ticket sales and merchandise.  And yet, FIFA went with two countries, one the size of Connecticut and one that spans 11 time zones, both of which will effectively be starting from scratch.  Both countries will need to build at least nine new stadiums and all the transportation and hospitality infrastructure to support them.  FIFA’s own inspection team rated both Russia and Qatar among the riskiest candidates.  And yet, Sepp Blatter stood on the stage in Zurich as the dotty, elitist, fumbling President that he is, declaring, “I am a happy President.”  Well of course he is, FIFA picked two oil-rich countries that will spend whatever it takes to buy global prestige affording FIFA the right to spend the next twelve years talking in earnest about their favorite topic – legacy.

So what did we learn from Thursday’s selection?  First we learned that FIFA is probably as corrupt as we imagine it to be – if not more. Two executive members were suspended when The Sunday Times outed them for trying to sell their votes.  That is only the tip of the iceberg.  The whole bid process was just full of scandal and bribery while void of accountability.  Ironically, FIFA, who governs “the people’s game” answers to no one, allowing it’s members to run wild with very little check on the power.

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Secondly, FIFA loves legacy. Perhaps it’s the other side of the corruption coin, FIFA can make up in legacy what it lacks in ethics.  A World Cup in Russia enables FIFA to expand the game to a massive population that is primed to love football, but is not quite there yet.  Russia is also a huge country that spans two continents and has a particularly important role in global geopolitics.  The only thing better than that for FIFA though, is hosting the first World Cup in the Middle East.

The Middle East is where the worlds collide, and FIFA has positioned itself right in the middle of the collision (and they see that as a good thing ).  The Qatar bid committee was boasting in fact that 2 billion people live within a four hour flight of the country.  FIFA seems to have these grandiose allusions of a better world in which Israeli and Palestinian children, Iranians and Americans, Indian and Chinese kids all playing football together in harmony (while wearing Nike and drinking Coke).   2010 was the first World Cup on the African continent, 2022 will be the first in the Middle East, by 2030 we should be ready for a Cup on the moon or under the sea.

Bids like the United States, England, Spain/Portugal and even Australia and Japan to some extent, did not offer FIFA a chance to gain any new ground for it’s legacy.  Putting the World Cup in any of those places does nothing for the how football can change the world argument. Holland/Belgium tried to position itself as the “green” World Cup, and South Korea argued that a World Cup there would unify the peninsula while subtly hinting that selecting another country would lead to nuclear obliteration.   Nonetheless, FIFA went with it grand allusions of legacy over any semblance of practicality.

Thirdly, FIFA will probably never again select two host countries at the same time. This proved to be an awful idea.  FIFA was under the impression that if they conducted the bidding process half the number of times, there would be half the difficulty, corruption, expense, etc.  Turned out that it was the opposite – double, maybe even quadruple the difficulty, corruption, expense etc.  In fact, it created a terrible situation where executive committee members had two votes that they could then leverage in various ways and vote swapping obviously became a horrific problem.  The public will probably never know the extent to which this occurred, but it’s safe to assume, a lot.

Lastly, Qatar’s bid efforts were unbelievable. If you look at the fact sheet, it would just seem impossible that they could host a world cup.  The country is tiny, they have less then 20% of necessary infrastructure, it’s over 115 degrees in the summer, and they don’t hail the same type of personal liberties that we tend to enjoy in the western world, particularly as pertains to both women’s rights and alcohol.

Throughout the whole bidding process though, the local organizing committee did everything right. HE Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Chairman of Qatar 2022, rewrote the textbook on how to stage a bid.  The committee had just an endless stream of money to pour into this effort, and it was obvious.  The Qatar 2022 website was unbelievable, with graphics and videos that are second to none.  The quality of this content is on par with a Transformers or Avatar size Hollywood Production (if you have not seen them, watch them. You can also watch the full presentation to FIFA Here.).  The Qatar effort recruited huge names like Zinedine Zidane to be a spokesman and roving ambassador for the effort. The vision for their stadiums were remarkable and innovative.  Qatar plans to build nine new lavish stadiums, in the next twelve years, than collapse them after the event, transport them, and reassemble the pieces in developing nations – an idea that only a nation swimming in oil money could both conjure and execute.

In conclusion, if you are willing to get over the fact that the process was riddled with corruption, and that the United States did not win, I can promise you that the next eight and twelve years will be a very exciting and contentious time for the global football politics.  And in that time, I think we will often find ourselves repeating the old adage – the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Category: FIFA Qatar Russia World Cup

About Laurent Dubois

I am Professor of Romance Studies and History and the Director of the Forum for Scholars & Publics at Duke University. I founded the Soccer Politics blog in 2009 as part of a course on "World Cup and World Politics" taught at Duke University. I'm currently teaching the course under the title "Soccer Politics" here at Duke. My books include Soccer Empire: The World Cup and the Future of France and the forthcoming The Language of the Game: How to Understand Soccer.

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