FIFA's choices of Russia and Qatar show its desire to leave a legacy
FIFA president Sepp Blatter believes the World Cup has an evangelizing element
Russia will be the first Eastern Europe country to host the World Cup
Selection of Qatar is about breaking ground in an Arab nation
Angry about the World Cup host vote? Can't understand how Russia and Qatar -- despite generally substandard technical reports filed by FIFA itself -- are getting to host the biggest sporting event in the universe in 2018 and 2022, respectively?
Maybe this will help. Consider what the point of hosting a World Cup is. If it's to give the biggest number of fans the best possible experience in terms of stadiums, facilities, infrastructure and safeties all at (relatively) affordable prices, while honoring those nations that have passionate fans and venerable traditions, then it would only ever really rotate between the same three or four countries. Or, in fact, you could just have it in Germany every four years.
But if you believe there's an evangelizing element to it and that as many as possible should get a chance to experience it to some degree, then you're going to employ different criteria. You'll push the boat out, you'll take risks, you'll test boundaries.
In case you had not figured it out, Sepp Blatter, the FIFA supremo, leans far more toward the latter camp. And he can afford to lean that way because -- here's a dirty little secret -- it really doesn't matter that much to the bottom line what the actual traveling fans think or experience. The vast majority live the World Cup through the magic of television and, via the tube, seen one stadium, seen them all. It really doesn't make much of a difference. Just as -- when you're sitting on your couch at home or standing in a bar with fellow supporters around the corner from your house -- it matters little whether human rights are being broken in a World Cup host country, whether women and sexual minorities are being discriminated against, whether there's a free press, whether there's crime or disease or 120-degree weather. None of it matters.
Nor does it really matter that much to the other stakeholders. Teams stay in five-star hotels with lavish training facilities. The sponsors and their corporate guests occupy similar cookie-cutter hotels. The media stay in slightly less nice surroundings, but they're still pretty much equivalent, whether it's South Africa or Germany or, indeed, Qatar.
Blatter knows this, which is why he can prioritize his evangelizing agenda. South Africa 2010 was, of course, an important first step. Now Russia, the first World Cup in a former Communist country, the first one in Eastern Europe (the Russian bid committee cleverly flashed the message "Western Europe 10, Eastern Europe 0" during its presentation). And, of course, Qatar: the first World Cup in an Arab nation and the first in a Muslim country. Lots of firsts for Mr. Blatter.
Which, evidently, is what matters most to him. And, while he is not omnipotent within FIFA (in fact, he has just one vote, plus the tiebreaking one, if necessary), his preference was pretty much an open secret. And there are enough people on the Executive Committee who either share his world view, fear him personally or are happy to do his bidding to stay in his good graces. That, ladies and gentleman, is why we'll be going to Russia and Qatar.
So what will it be like? Having watched games in both countries, I have a little bit of experience here. Russia has an important and underappreciated soccer history that, sadly, sort of fell by the wayside after the fall of Communism (though Russian clubs are performing better of late), simply because putting money into soccer wasn't much of a priority in the years immediately after the breakup.
You'll probably hear plenty about the negatives: crime, lack of a fully free press, drug use, high prices, etc. Those are the ones that will be difficult to exorcise between now and 2018. With the other drawbacks, it depends how much faith you put into the Russian government's ability to deliver on its promises. Infrastructure needs massive upgrading across the board, both in terms of stadiums and transportation. Eight years is enough time to do that, provided the cash and political will are there.
Qatar, with its projected budget of at least $50 billion, is, of course, an even more ambitious project, one that some might say borders on folly. You've heard about the outdoor air conditioning, the new stadiums built ex novo (some of which will -- supposedly -- be dismantled brick-by-brick and shipped to some needy developing nation), the tiny population and the nonexistent public transportation, among other things. It's an absurdity, but it's also a statement. It says: FIFA is so powerful that it can make an entire country grind to a halt and turn itself into a gigantic soccer amusement park. Which is, possibly, the most charitable way of looking at it.
When I was there, the Qataris had spent heavily to lure a glut of foreign stars -- including Stefan Effenberg, Pep Guardiola, Gabriel Batistuta and Claudio Caniggia -- to the Emirate in the hopes of kick-starting the local league. It didn't really work. Games were held in new stadiums with several hundred people rattling around grounds that could hold 30,000. To improve attendance, they held doubleheaders and prize draws at halftime where you could walk away with a million dollars. And still, nobody was really interested. Within a year or two, all the superstars left to be replaced by cheap imports from Africa and South America.
This is not about evangelizing Qatar to the joys of soccer. (Why would you? The population encompasses about 400,000 native-born citizens, and the rest are expats, mostly from Pakistan, who probably get more excited about cricket anyway.) It's about breaking the initial barrier of a World Cup in an Arab (and a Muslim) country and showing that, when it comes to FIFA, nothing is beyond the realm of imagination.
Blatter calls this kind of stuff "legacy." And, to him, it's extremely important. Rather than complaining, if you feel differently, there is something you can do. Vote him out of office the next time you get a chance. But don't hold your breath. Last time FIFA's members tried to do that, they failed. In its own, slightly twisted way, FIFA is a democracy. National associations can complain all they like, but if Blatter and his vision are dictating the path of the game over the next decades, it's because a majority of voters thought keeping him in power was the right thing to do.