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OUR BRAVE NEW BLOATED WORLD . . . CUP

The 2026 World Cup will have 48 teams.

The move from 32 teams to four dozen was approved unanimously by the FIFA governing council, an expansion of world soccer’s championship tournament that was welcomed by supporters as a victory for inclusion but criticized by others as another cynical, money-driven effort by an organization still in the throes of a financial and ethical scandal.

The percentage of the expansion will be the largest ever, from the original 16 (1930-78) to 24 (1982-94) to 32 (1998-2022).  More teams mean more matches, in this case an increase from 64 games to 80.  It also means greater revenue:  the 2018 World Cup in Russia is expected to pull in $5.5 billion through television rights, sponsorships and tickets; the 48-nation ’26 cup will bring in an additional billion.  Some of the expected increased profit–approximately $640 million–will find its way into the coffers of soccer’s six continental confederations and–presumably–on to FIFA’s 211 member national federations.

New FIFA boss Gianni Infantino had pushed for the change in 2016 when he ran for the presidency in an effort to include more nations and invigorate what was already the world’s most popular sporting event.

But critics contend that opening the World Cup doors to lesser soccer-playing nations will result in a weaker tournament, with nearly a quarter of FIFA’s membership reaching its most prestigious competition every four years and more matches crammed into an already crowded international calendar.  Infantino was unconcerned.  “We are in the 21st century, and we have to shape the football World Cup of the 21st century,” he said after the vote.  “Football is more than just Europe and South America.  Football is global.”

For Russia ’18, Europe, as usual, will have the lion’s share of berths, 13, plus the automatic slot that goes to the host nation.  Ten-nation South America gets four berths, as does 47-nation Asia.  Africa’s 56 members will battle for five slots.  CONCACAF gets three.  The 31st and 32nd berths will go to the winners of home-and-home playoffs between CONCACAF and Asian also-rans and between the Oceania winner and a South American also-ran.  A decision on how the 2026 pie will be sliced will be made in May.  [January 10]

Comment:  No surprise here.   A huge expansion of the World Cup field for 2026 became inevitable with Infantino’s early Christmas present to the likes of Asia, Africa, CONCACAF and Oceania:  release of a 65-page analysis by a FIFA in-house group of five options in growing the World Cup.   The 48-team concept was rated best (and most profitable), with 16–sixteen!–groups of three teams each playing round-robin to open the tournament.  Another 48-team format called for a 32-team knockout round, followed by a group stage involving the 16 survivors and 16 seeded teams, for 80 total games.  Then there was the idea of 40 teams divided into eight groups of five and, in the end, 88 games played.  Or, 40 teams with 10 groups of four for a total of 76 games.

The opposition, not surprisingly, was led by the European Club Association, which represents 220 clubs on the Continent.  It called the present 32-team format “the perfect formula from all perspectives.”  The ECA added, “We understand that this decision has been taken based on political reasons rather than sporting ones and under considerable political pressure, something ECA believes is regrettable.”

The FIFA analysis indeed conceded the expansion would diminish the level of play at that World Cup, but it also explicitly stated that the FIFA governing council must make its decision purely for “sporting” reasons.  But back to reality.

While Option No. 2 (an opening knockout round involving 32 teams, with the losers going home after one match), may seem ridiculous, what the governing council–the body created to replace the greedy, seedy and disgraced Executive Committee–settled on is only slightly better.  Expansion itself is a bad idea.  Despite three expansions since the late 1970s, the World Cup has remained a relatively compact monthlong festival of soccer.  The approved 48-team formula would mean a reasonable increase by one or two days to 32; the two finalists would still play the customary seven games; and the usual 12 stadiums would be required of the host nation(s).  But the addition of no-hopers only means an erosion in the level of play and a resulting decline in interest among the general public.  If Brasil ’14 had been expanded to 48, the tournament might have included the likes Egypt, Tunisia, and Jordan–and the forgettable matches they were likely to contribute.  As for inclusion, today’s 32-team format has already allowed otherwise outsiders Trinidad & Tobago, China, Slovenia, Angola, North Korea, New Zealand, Tunisia, Togo and Saudi Arabia to have their day in the sun, not to mention splinters from the former Yugoslavia–Serbia & Montenegro (2006), Serbia (’10) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (’14).

Beyond concerns over the drop in level of play, the 16 x 3 format given FIFA’s blessing contains a serious flaw.  Forty-eight teams divided into 16 groups of three might require penalty-kick tiebreakers after drawn matches in the first round to ensure there is a “winner.”  After all, there has to be a brutally quick method to determine a group’s top two finishers and send the third-place team home.  That radical change to how the opening round of a World Cup is run also would be necessary to prevent teams from conspiring to arrange a favorable result in the final group game.

Just what we need:  More chances for PK tiebreakers to rear their ugly head before a global audience.  And more of just what we need:  A reprise of the three-team group, with each team playing just two games.  That was tried at Espana ’82, the first go-round with a 24-team field, when four three-team groups followed the first round and those group winners advanced to the semifinals.  Three teams playing two matches each promised nothing more than mostly defensive, nervy encounters that would please no one, and while there was Italy’s classic 3-2 win over favored Brazil, the 12 games averaged less than 2 1/2 goals–a half goal fewer than the tournament average–and included three scoreless draws.  Happily, that format was jettisoned for Mexico ’86 in favor of the now-familiar 16-team knockout second round.

There’s also the matter of what the bigger field will mean to the qualifying competition for ’26.  If Europe and South America gain only a couple of extra berths, the traditional powers there will have even less to fear.  Even in CONCACAF, the U.S. and Mexico, which survived a mighty scare before slipping into the 2014 World Cup, have no worries.  And with still less drama during what is an interminable qualifying process, the fans lose.

Finally, the expansion in ’26 also will mean a greater burden on the host, which will have to find accommodations and training facilities for an additional 16 teams, a new consideration that will hike the organizing nation’s bill from $2 billion to $2.3 billion.  That’s why there has been talk of the job of hosting that first 48-team event going to the triumvirate of the United States, Mexico and Canada.  Informal talks among the three have already begun.  The decision will be made in May 2020, and FIFA’s World Cup rotation among the continents would put North America in line to host.  Fueling the speculation is that Infantino owes U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, who was instrumental in getting the Swiss-Italian elected FIFA boss in February.  There’s also the matter of the now-disgraced FIFA Executive Committee having given the U.S. the shaft in 2010 when it chose to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, ignoring the stronger American bid.  But beyond ’26, FIFA will have created a monster event that few potential hosts can handle.  Potential hosts like . . . China, which, on the heels of its 2008 Beijing Olympics, is keen to play host to the world’s biggest single-sport event.

There can be no denying that the soccer-playing world is a much more level playing field today than it was back in the days when the World Cup was an exclusive club of 16.  You could start with surprise packages like Costa Rica, which at Brasil ’14 stunned Uruguay and Italy and tied England before nipping Greece on penalty kicks in the second round and bowing in the quarterfinals to the Netherlands, 4-3 on PKs, after a brave scoreless draw.  But the World Cup remains a competition won by only eight nations–Brazil, Germany, Italy, Uruguay, Argentina, Spain, England and France–and the list of worthy also-rans remains limited to the Dutch; Hungary of long ago; Czechoslovakia, which no longer exists; and, in a bit of a stretch, Sweden.  That’s it.  Infantino’s gambit does nothing more than give hope to the hopeless and directs those extra one billion bucks into FIFA’s coffers at the final accounting of the 2026 World Cup.  And for the fans, if gives them countless more forgettable, hardly watchable matches between giants and minnows under the guise of FIFA World Cup soccer.  And World Cup games, even those not so great, should be somewhat memorable.

In the end, the winner is Infantino.  His act of patronage has placed dozens of soccer’s have-not nations in his debt, and when it comes to FIFA presidential elections, it’s a one-nation, one-vote world.  His power base is assured.



BRACE FOR INFANTINO’S 40-NATION WORLD CUP

A dark horse candidate–Michel Platini’s lieutenant at the UEFA–emerged as the victor in a tense, six-hour FIFA presidential election in Zurich as member nations sought to put behind them years of scandal that cost Sepp Blatter his job as world soccer boss and led to the indictment of 41 soccer officials and marketing agencies.

Gianni Infantino, an Italian-Swiss attorney who grew up in the Alpine Village of Brig–just seven miles from Blatter’s hometown of Visp–surprisingly finished first in the initial balloting, attracting 88 votes to 85 for the favorite, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim of Bahrain, 27 for Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan and seven for Jerome Champagne of France.  With no one having won a two-thirds majority, that set up a second ballot for the first time in 42 years, and with a simple majority of the 104 votes needed,  Infantino out-polled Salman, 115 to 88.  Ali received four votes and Champagne none.

Salman, the head of the Asian Football Confederation, was the front-runner during the four-month campaign, but he apparently was undone by concerns over his actions during the Arab Spring riots of 2011.  Infantino only entered the race in October to hold a place for Platini, who was under investigation for financial wrongdoing and ultimately was banned from soccer activities by FIFA for six years.

Infantino, 45, will be president until May 2019, completing Blatter’s term.  Blatter resigned under pressure last May, four days after winning a fifth four-year term as FIFA chief.  He subsequently was banned for eight years–later reduced to six–for financial mismanagement related to his dealings with Platini.

Before the election the member federations approved a wide-ranging slate of reforms intended to increase transparency, foster greater inclusion and restore the confidence of sponsors.  Among them, FIFA presidents will be limited to three four-year teams, and the FIFA Executive Committee will be expanded from 24 to 36 members (six of whom must be women) and renamed the FIFA Council.  [February 26]

Comment:  Best of luck to Infantino in righting the FIFA ship.  But beware of another Swiss bearing gifts.

Just as Blatter before him and Brazilian Joao Havelange before him, Infantino assumes the world soccer throne having made offers to please the have-nots among the membership, including more funding steered in their direction from the $5 billion taken in by the 2014 World Cup.  But for those who consider the World Cup the greatest of all sporting events, what’s troubling is Infantino’s stance that the tournament be expanded from 32 finalists to 40.

It doesn’t seem like much:  eight extra nations, probably 10 groups of four teams instead of the eight groups of four at Brazil ’14 and every World Cup since France ’98.  But does international soccer’s biggest stage really need an additional eight no-hopers, eight teams that under today’s format wouldn’t have even been strong enough to earn the opportunity to finish last in a World Cup first-round group?

World Cups have had contenders who hadn’t a prayer of even surviving the opening round of a 16-nation tournament, from Dutch East Indies in 1938 and South Korea (0 goals for, 16 against, in two matches) in 1954 to Zaire (a 9-0 loser to Yugoslavia) in 1974.  But while the balance of power around the world has improved, FIFA has maintained the World Cup gap between the strongest nations and the rest by expanding the tournament, first to 24 nations in 1982, then the present 32 in ’98.  As a result, the finals remains diluted, and we get performances like those of Cameroon, Australia and Honduras two years ago, which went a combined 0-9-0 with five goals scored and 26 conceded.  That amounted to matches not worth watching on what is the sport’s grand stage.

The parameters for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and ’22 in Qatar have already been set, so the first time Infantino could spring a 40-nation tournament on the world wouldn’t be possible until 2026, whose host–the U.S., perhaps–has yet to be determined.  But Americans already have seen how these things get out of control.  The NCAA basketball tournament started modestly enough in 1939 as an eight-school affair.  Within a dozen years it had been expanded to 16, then doubled again in 1975.  Four years after that it was 40, and the year after that 48.  It has since grown by degrees to 68 schools, and for the past five years there has been pressure to expand it to 128.  And the driving force behind this amazing expansion has been–no surprise here–television money.

Infantino has to lead the reform of FIFA while his organization deals with a current deficit of $108 million.  A tall order.  Should he win a term in his own right, he’d have the opportunity to make a 40-nation World Cup a reality in 2026.  And he would know how to get it done.  In his previous post, as UEFA general secretary, Infantino oversaw the expansion of the European Championship from 16 teams to 24.  If that seems bloated, it is:  That’s nearly half the UEFA’s membership of 54 nations.  Ridiculous, but countries like San Marino, Liechtenstein and Andorra can dream, now, can’t they?  And soccer fans who want to watch a competition like the Euro Championship that offers the highest possible quality can hope that no-hopers like that continue to be able to do nothing more than dream.



MAKING THE SQUARE QATAR PEG FIT INTO THE ROUND WORLD CUP HOLE

The 2022 World Cup in Qatar will be an autumn affair, the first World Cup not to be played in late spring/early summer.

A task force formed to look into ways to avoid the sweltering summer heat in the tiny Gulf state is recommending that Qatar ’22 be played in November and December.  Its report is expected to be ratified by the FIFA Executive Committee when it meets in Zurich on March 19 and 20.

Summer temperatures in Qatar routinely top 100 degrees while the heat drops to the high 70s in late fall.

The task force, headed by Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, considered a January-February tournament,  but that would clash with the Winter Olympics.  April was rejected because Ramadan will be observed in the Muslim world in that month in 2022.

Under the recommendation, it is believed that Qatar ’22 would be shorter than the traditional 31 or 32 days, kicking off November 26 and ending on December 23, two days before Christmas.

Though FIFA says all of its confederations favor the move to November-December, it is expected to encounter fierce opposition from Europe’s top leagues.  Most of those leagues traditionally schedule a winter break of up to four weeks for weather reasons, but the task force’s plan would idle players not involved in the ’22 World Cup for up to eight weeks  [February 25]

Comment:  A very bad idea got worse.

The FIFA Executive Committee’s expected rubber-stamp to this topsy-turvy scheduling of a World Cup is further proof that the world’s soccer-governing body is hell-bent on holding its world championship in Qatar at all costs.  Allegations that the Qataris won over a solid U.S. bid through bribery have been swept under the rug.  Reports that foreign workers involved in World Cup preparations have been mistreated or even died in accidents is worth a shrug, all the more troubling because the stadiums and infrastructure promised by Qatar are being built from scratch.  At No. 109 in the latest FIFA World Rankings, the Qatari National Team is poised to be the worst host side in World Cup history, far weaker than South Africa in 2010.  And if a June World Cup in Qatar is being considered unworkable, then Qatar isn’t likely to be able to host the 2021 FIFA Confederations Cup, the tradition World Cup dress rehearsal for a host nation.

On a much, much smaller scale, there’s something for Americans to consider, and it’s not just the fact that, among EuroSnobs, their favorite club’s schedule will be interrupted by a November-December World Cup after just a dozen matches.

TV ratings, those figures that determine in the future how often you can see your favorite European club or whether you can watch UEFA Champions League games on cable or network television here, will take a serious hit if the 2022 World Cup is played in late fall.

At last year’s World Cup, the USA’s first-round match against Portugal was played on a Sunday.  America was sitting on its couch with nothing more than mid-season baseball and a golf tournament as a diversion, and the TV audience for what will be remembered here for Cristiano Ronaldo’s last-gasp, heartbreaking assist, was 24.7 million on ESPN and Univision combined, a record for a soccer telecast in the U.S.  There were no NFL games, no college football games, no NBA games, no NHL games to syphon off viewers.  A similar World Cup game, played on an NFL Sunday in 2022, will be buried in the ratings.  NFL games last season averaged 17.6 million–five pro gridiron games attracted more than 29 million.

Perhaps, in seven years, a November World Cup can steal casual viewers from the NFL.  At present, it’s doubtful.



AN UNTHINKABLE WORLD CUP

ISIS militants executed 13 teen-aged boys in Islamic State-controlled Mosul for watching the 2015 Asian Cup first-round match between Iraq and Jordan.

The youngsters were caught in the Al-Yarmouk district taking in the match being televised from Brisbane, Australia.  Accused of violating Sharia law, they were rounded up and, after their crime was announced over loudspeaker, machine-gunned to death in a public execution.  Family members did not immediately recover the bodies out of fear of murder by ISIS gunmen.  [January 12]

Comment:  The 2022 World Cup will be held in Qatar.  The tiny Middle Eastern state on the Persian Gulf was selected host nation in a vote of the FIFA Executive Committee in 2010 that had a strong odor to it and left runners-up the U.S., Australia, Japan and South Korea dumbfounded.  Since then, concerns over the heat in Qatar in June and July–the traditional World Cup months–have stirred speculation that the event would be shifted to December-January for the first time ever, a move that would turn many of the world’s club schedules upside down.  And, most recently, the release of the report of an investigation into suspicions that the Qataris bought the Executive Committee has been stonewalled by FIFA.  But if matches played in 107-degree temperatures and bald corruption aren’t enough to prompt FIFA to reconsider its decision to risk its prime jewel (a.k.a., its prime cash cow), perhaps it’s this heinous execution in Mosul.

As the Qatari delegation asked of the Executive Committee in its final pitch to become the ’22 host nation, “When?”  When would a World Cup be awarded to a region that is as passionate about soccer as any on the planet?  But the turmoil in that part of the world continues to grow, and with it the fear that if ISIS is ultimately defeated over the next few years, another extreme Islamist force will take its place.  And, as these ISIS monsters demonstrated, while soccer is blithely called a religion around the world, to a few on the edge of sanity, to them it’s an anti-religion.

That raises the formerly unthinkable prospect that a World Cup could be a prime target of terrorists–namely, Qatar ’22.  Previously, it was easy to believe that the World Cup was immune to any sort of attack because of soccer’s sky-high popularity.  The Black September massacre of Israeli wrestlers at the 1972 Munich Summer Games shattered the image of the Olympics as a joyous festival of global goodwill–and turned the planet against the terrorists behind it.  But today’s terrorists doesn’t care.  We’ve seen through the beheadings and the summary execution of boys that they have no public relations department and don’t want one.  If they enrage soccer fans around the globe, they’ve made their point in the strongest possible terms.  Worse still, they may be able to reach New York, London, Madrid, and Tokyo, but striking in their own backyard is so much easier.  And that should be cause for concern at FIFA headquarters in Zurich.  This latest atrocity was committed in Mosul.  That’s only 910 miles from Doha, the capital of Qatar.

For the record:  Iraq, whose soccer triumphs have united the country like nothing else, beat Jordan that day, 1-0, and later finished second in its Asian Cup group to advance to the quarterfinals, where it edged arch rival Iran on penalty kicks, 7-6, after a 3-3 draw.  The Iraqis succumbed in the semifinals to South Korea, 2-0, in Sydney.



FOUR MORE YEARS

Jack Warner of Trinidad & Tobago, running unopposed, was re-elected unanimously as president of CONCACAF at the regional confederation’s congress in Miami.

Warner, a FIFA vice president and, since 1983, a FIFA Executive Committee member, won his sixth four-year term as CONCACAF supremo.

Junstino Compean, the Mexican Football Federation chief, and Lisle Austin of Barbados were elected vice presidents.  Both ran unopposed.  [May 3]

Comment:  So it’s four more years of the slippery Warner, a man whose transgessions have been well documented. 

Warner’s first great feat came in November 1989, when, as Trinidad & Tobago soccer boss, he had thousands of bogus tickets printed for the World Cup qualifying showdown between T&T and the U.S. in Port of Spain, a game in which Warner’s “Strike Force” needed only a tie to earn a berth in Italia ’90.  T&T lost, of course, on Paul Caligiuri’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” but Warner was on his way.  Already president of the Caribbean Football Union, he won his first term as CONCACAF president the following year.  He has since amassed a fortune estimated at between $20 million and $40 million based solely upon his ostensibly valuable skills as a soccer administrator. 

Warner’s re-election extends a proud tradition in CONCACAF, which will mark its 50th anniversary this year.  For 22 years the North/Central American and Caribbean region was under the dictatorial rule of Warner’s predecessor, Joaquin Soria Terrazas.  For many of those years CONCACAF was headquartered in Guatemala City, which, at the time, had no international airport.  (Warner, to his credit, lifted his kingdom’s profile considerably by moving its offices to Trump Tower in New York.)

Don’t look for Warner to go away any time soon.  CONCACAF has 40 member nations, fully three quarters of them part of the CFU.  As long as Warner looks after them, his reign will be everlasting.



CONCACAF PLUS 3.5 ADDS UP

CONCACAF fell short in its effort to gain an extra berth in the 2014 World Cup as the FIFA Executive Committee decided to give the North/Central America and Caribbean region the same 3.5 spots it was awarded for the 2010 tournament.

Under the allotment, CONCACAF will have three guaranteed spots; the fourth-place finisher in its qualifying competition will have a chance to reach Brasil ’14 through a home-and-home playoff with a nation from another regional confederation.

South America will have 4.5 qualifying berths, plus Brazil’s automatic spot as host.  Europe will keep its 13 berths, and Africa its five.  Once again, Asia will have 4.5 and Oceania 0.5.

One change:  A draw will be held in July to determine the playoff pairings among the CONCACAF fourth-place finisher, South America’s No. 5, Asia’s No. 5 and the Oceania winner.

The outcome, nevertheless, left CONCACAF officials–among them president Jack Warner of Trinidad & Tobago, who said in January that his region would lobby for an outright fourth berth– disappointed, if not angry.  Said CONCACAF Secretary General Chuck Blazer of the U.S., like Warner a FIFA Executive Committee member, “We are 35 members who are very serious about qualifying.  We want to be treated fairly and given enough opportunity to be successful.  Hear us.”  [March 3]

Comment:  Crocodile tears. 

Much can be said about how berths have been doled out since the World Cup expanded from 24 teams to 32 for Francia ’98.  Did Asia, in 2002, deserve two qualifying berths to go along with automatic berths that went to co-hosts Japan and South Korea?  Should Europe, with a high of 15 nations in ’98, continue to watch its presence erode?  When it comes to Africa, which had six total slots at South Africa ’10 and saw only Ghana survive the second round, will FIFA continue to reward that continent based on, presumably, promise alone?

For now, FIFA uncharacteristically got it right, for the most part.  Oceania, which since Australia’s defection to Asia has become New Zealand and the Eight Dwarves, truly does not deserve a straight path to a World Cup.   South America, with Brazil holding one spot, deserves its five qualifying spots.   And CONCACAF, which to most of FIFA is Mexico and the U.S.–plus, depending on the year, Costa Rica or Honduras or Canada or T&T or Jamaica, plus a couple dozen dots in the Caribbean–deserves its 3.5.  

At the last World Cup, the U.S., though first in its group at 1-0-2, and Mexico (second, 1-1-1) and Honduras (0-2-1) failed to turn the tournament on its ear.  CONCACAF’s fourth-place team, Costa Rica, dropped its playoff with Uruguay, although it should be noted that the Uruguayans went on to reach the semifinals.

If CONCACAF wants its fourth, it will have to overwhelm FIFA with its performance in Brazil.  The USA’s appearance in the 2002 quarterfinals won’t do, nor will Mexico’s in 1986, when it was host.  It will take that combined, plus a repeat of Uruguay1930, to do it.  That time, the U.S., 32 years before the founding of CONCACAF, finished third.



NO WINTER WONDERLAND FOR MLS SUPPORTERS

Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber said his league will not shift to a late-summer-to-mid-spring schedule that predominates in the Northern Hemisphere.

Garber had offered to get MLS, which plays from March to November, in line with most major European leagues in an effort to sway FIFA prior to its vote last month on the host of the 2022 World Cup.   The U.S. bid, however, finished second to Qatar, and Garber apparently has since pulled his offer off the table.

“We’ll revisit the whole decision on moving our schedule,” Garber told AOL Fanhouse at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention in Baltimore.  “Right now I think I think the whole schedule thing is certainly up in the air.  Right now FIFA is talking about a winter World Cup [in Qatar], so maybe the season we have is right.  I think we’ll probably take a deep breath and put that concept on the back burner.”   [January 13]   

Comment:  Whew.

That’s the sound of that deep breath as Garber drops his ill-considered sop to a FIFA Executive Committee that was bound and determined to reject the USA’s bid in favor of Qatar’s.

Europe can play matches in snow, sleet, freezing rain, and slog through, but MLS isn’t that strong, yet. 

Perhaps the hearty fans of the Chicago Fire or New England Revolution or Toronto FC would turn out, a few thousand strong, for a match in January, but give the league’s fair-weather clubs a cold drizzle and the attendance there would be in the hundreds.  That’s not something the league–still trying to match the average attendance of 17,000 it pulled in during its inaugural season in 1996–needs.



… AND AFTER THE DIE IS CAST ….

FIFA President Sepp Blatter was on the defensive during ceremonies in Johannesburg to mark the closing of the 2010 World Cup, insisting–and at one point pounding the podium for emphasis–that the controversial selection of Russia and Qatar as hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups was intended to develop soccer in those regions and nothing more.  [December 13]

Comment:  Blatter blithely brushed aside concerns over the searing heat that would await a Qatari World Cup and instead took heat himself for his clumsy remarks regarding how the locals would view alcohol comsumption and homosexual activity by their foreign guests during the monthlong event.   Yet heat remains the central issue as the reality of a World Cup in summer in a Persian Gulf state measuring just 6,000 square miles sinks in.  Despite the claims by Qatari organizers that their open-air stadiums will be cooled to 81 degrees, one can only recall the 1994 World Cup.  The host U.S. was swept by an unseasonable heat wave that June and July, and the image of Ireland coach Jackie Charlton angrily tossing water bottles onto the field for his dehydrated players remains indelible.  If Ireland was to qualify for Qatar ’22 and Big Jack was still in charge of the Irish, one of his first questions would concern the training grounds scattered about Qatar and whether they, too, were air conditioned.

Already, German legend Franz Beckenbauer and UEFA President Michel Platini have questioned the wisdom of a World Cup held in the heat of a Middle Eastern desert.  It has been suggested that Qatar ’22 be moved to January of that year.  That would be unworkable, however, given the power of Europe’s top clubs.

Obviously, FIFA’s M.O. is one of,  create a daunting problem now, solve it later.  (In U.S. Navy terms, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”)   But the more important lesson here should not be missed by nations considering a bid for a future World Cup:  Spend a few million and invest a couple of years to submit a bid with nary a blemish, but if the FIFA Executive Committee wants to “grow the game” in Antarctica, the Gobi Desert or Saturn, your bid will politely be given the circular file.

Among the talk out of the December 2 announcements in Zurich was that the 2030 World Cup will go to Uruguay or Uruguay-Argentina to commemorate the centenary of the first World Cup, hosted by Uruguay (or make that Montevideo, at only three stadiums).  If there’s any substance to that rumor, wanna bet that Uruguay 2030  runs unopposed?



DON’T JUST FOLLOW THE MONEY

Qatar beat out a strong bid by the U.S. to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup while Russia was awarded the 2018 tournament in balloting by the FIFA Executive Committee in Zurich. 

With 22 members taking part, 12 votes were needed to win.  The last-place finisher in each round was eliminated.

The 2022 vote: 

First Round — Qatar 11, U.S. 3, South Korea 4, Japan 3, Australia 1.

Second Round — Qater 10, U.S. 5, South Korea 5, Japan 2.

Third Round — Qatar 11, U.S. 6, South Korea 5.

Fourth Round — Qatar 14, U.S. 8. 

The 2018 vote: 

First round — Russia 9, Spain/Portugal 7, Holland/Belgium 4, England 2.

Second Round — Russia 13, Spain/Portugal 7, Holland/Belgium 2.  [December 2]

Comment:  So how did Qatar do it?  How did this nation of 1.7 million people perched on a tiny Persian Gulf peninsula, a country that has never even qualified for a World Cup, win the prize at the expense of the United States, a nation whose bid was the only one among the nine 2018/22 hopefuls to be given a 100 percent score by FIFA?

To many, the immediate answer was, “Follow the petrodollars.”  That, however, may be too easy.  The U.S. bid, after all, promised record broadcast rights fees and ticket revenues from a land that is home to many of FIFA’s  major sponsors.

However, there’s the usual horse trading of votes.  In fact, the trading season might have begun not during the bidders’ presentations in Zurich but back in August, when Asian Football Confederation chief Mohamed bin Hammam announced that he would not run for the FIFA presidency in 2011 and instead devote his efforts to ensuring that his native land–Qatar–wins the 2022 World Cup sweepstakes, thus clearing the way for Sepp Blatter to win a fourth four-year term as FIFA supremo next year.  And beyond the horse trading, there was the geopolitical factor. 

Qatar’s bid borders on the fantastic:  Build seven stadiums and enlarge five others and air-condition them to beat July heat that can reach 115 degrees, then dismantle most and reassemble them in needy nations.  That grabbed the attention.   But two emotional appeals at the end of its slick bid presentation the day before the vote were telling.  One young man whose affiliation was listed as Qatar Foundation, a non-profit founded by the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, told of losing family members in fighting in his native Iraq, then recounted Iraq’s triumph at the 2007 Asian Cup, a feat that united–briefly–that country’s Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds and Christians.  The point, though a pipe dream, is that a Qatari World Cup could bring together the Middle East.   The emir’s wife, Sheika Moza bint Nasser al-Missned, then addressed committee members, pointedly, dramatically, asking them, “When?  When will the World Cup come to the Middle East?”

The United States is not loved in the Arab world.  The young Iraqi did not elaborate on the “fighting” that claimed his family members, but most U.S. bid members must have felt their ears burning, at least for a moment.  For Executive Committee members with sympathies toward, or obligations to, the Middle East, Her Highness’ question–“When?”–could be regarded as a firm prod, if not an effective bit of guilt tripping.  And what would be more delicious to those leaning in that direction than to award a World Cup to a Middle Eastern state at the expense of the Western nation that looms menacingly over the region, from Israel to Iraq to Afghanistan?

At the same time, the vote may have been FIFA’s way of putting the U.S. in its place. 

The U.S. bid, on its face, hit all the high notes:  stadiums, infrastructure, profits, experience, diversity, and what could be summed up as “give us the World Cup and we’ll finish what was begun in 1994.”  However, it could be that FIFA likes the United States exactly where it is, a giant who has, in soccer terms, struggled from a prone position to rise up on one knee.  Perhaps that’s the way FIFA wants things for the time being:  a United States that is a cash cow of Coca-Colas and Visas, a credible competitor on the international stage but not a perennial champion, a people whose interest in the game is encouraging but not overwhelming.

No country on earth has the soccer potential of the United States.  If realized, America could very well become the tail that wags the dog (see U.S. television rights, International Olympic Committee).  And what FIFA doesn’t need is another one of its 208 member-nations treating it with disdain.  Like England.

Some notes:

          o  Five of the new stadiums promised by Qatar have been designed by Albert Speer and Partners.  Yes, that Albert Speer–Albert Speer Jr., son of Hitler’s most favored architect and ultimately the Nazis’ munitions minister during World War II. 

          o  Russia’s current place in the FIFA World Rankings–No. 10–is a bit flattering.  That’s six places above four-time world champion Italy.  Qatar’s place–No. 109, one place ahead of Iceland–is not.   

          Qatar has been trying to reach a World Cup since 1978, and despite a string of Brazilian and French coaches it has failed all nine times.  Its greatest international feat remains its loss to West Germany in the final of the 1981 FIFA World Youth (U-20) Championship, followed by a fourth-place finish at the 1991 FIFA Under-17 World Championship.  The hardware in the dusty Qatari trophy case:  Winners of the 1992 and 2004 Gulf Cups, both times as host.  Qatar also pocketed runners-up medals at the 1998 Arab Nations Cup, an event it hosted.  In one of its most recent friendlies, the ultra-rich Qatar lost to the desperately poor Haiti, 1-0, in Doha before a throng of 5,000.  According to the FIFA rankings, No. 109 loses to No. 128–at home.  Had the U.S. been eliminated in the first round of its 1994 World Cup, it would have been a horror.  Then South Africa failed to reach the second round of its 2010 World Cup, and FIFA apparently concluded that losing a host nation after three matches doesn’t signal the end of the world.   So it’s on to Qatar.

          Meanwhile, don’t look to the Qatari Stars League–a circuit of 12 first division teams and six in the second–to serve as a springboard to international glory.  Since its launch in 1963, it has won zero honors in Asian club play.  Its most decorated club, at 12 national championships and six second-place finishes, is the aptly named Al-Sadd.

          o  It remains to be seen what Qatar ’22 will do to grow the game in the Middle East.  Soccer is already the region’s passion, so if the event cannot further rachet up the game’s popularity, then FIFA’s aim, surely, is to lift the level of play there.  However . . .

          Arab nations, despite considerable capital investment, have combined to make 20 World Cup appearances dating back to Argentina ’78.  The result is a record of 7-38-15.  Tunisia has crashed in the opening round four times, followed by Algeria, three; Egypt, two; and Kuwait, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, one each.  Morocco and Saudi Arabia have both qualified four times, and they lead the parade with one second-round appearance apiece, in 1986 and 1994, respectively.

          Because of a reluctance on the part of Westerners to travel to Qatar for the ’22 World Cup, the in-stadium audience for the tournament could very well be overwhelmingly Middle Eastern.  And if so, a wave of passion could see the world’s 109th-best team into the Round of 16, the realm of respectability.  But don’t count on it.



A NEW BID, AND A WHOLE NEW AMERICA (PART II)

Fox Soccer Channel, already running a daily countdown graphic in the upper corner of your television screen, plans extensive coverage of the Thursday, December 2, FIFA Executive Committee vote on the host nations for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. 

“Fox Soccer Report Special, D-Day Minus One” will air Wednesday, December 1, at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m.  “D-Day Minus One” will be reprised Friday, December 2, at 9 a.m., followed at 9:30 a.m. by live coverage of the announcements from Zurich.  (Note:  all times Eastern Standard.)  [November 28]

Comment:  Has America changed in the nearly 22 years since the U.S. was awarded its first World Cup?  There certainly was no soccer-specialty cable channel around in 1988 to cover the announcement that the United States had beaten out Morocco and Brazil.  (For the record, it was 10 votes to seven and two, respectively.)  There was no Internet, as we know it, so there was no www.fifa.com.   There was the nascent CNN, rare in American homes.  So it’s a personal anecdote that perhaps best encapsules the times:

The Executive Committe balloting to choose the host of the 15th World Cup had been moved by FIFA from June 30 to July 4, seen by many as a clear signal that the votes had lined up in the USA’s favor.  Nevertheless, advance coverage in the American mainstream media was almost non-existent.  This was just a World Cup, after all, not an Olympic Games.   On the Fourth of July, the winner was announced by FIFA Senior Vice President Harry Cavan at 1:21 p.m. local time in the Regulus Room of Zurich’s Movenpick Hotel.  So for one bleary eyed West Coast fan–nine time zones away in the pre-dawn darkness, anticipating a 1 o’clock, Swiss time, announcement–there was an additional wait of almost 25 minutes for the local all-news radio station to air its next twice-hourly sports report. 

At 4:45 a.m. (PDT), baseball scores and tennis results–nothing more.  Where to turn?   There was the temptation to call the Associated Press in New York, but perhaps there was a delay in the vote; surely the radio would bring the news in its next sportscast.  However, at 5:15 a.m., once again it was baseball and tennis, plus a bit of golf, so an anxious call was placed to the radio station’s newsroom.

Caller:  “Was the U.S. awarded the rights to host the 1994 World Cup?  Y’know, in soccer.”

KNX:  “Don’t know.  I’ll check sports.”  (A muffled, “Hey, did the U.S. get the ’94 soccer World Cup?”)  [Long pause]  “Yeah.”

Caller:  “The U.S. did get it?”  

KNX:  “Yeah.”

Caller:  “When did it come in?”

KNX:  (Muffled, again.)  [Pause]  “He says about an hour ago.”

Caller:  “Thank you.”

For the record, KNX reported the fact that the U.S. would host the biggest single-sport event in the world during its 5:45 a.m. sportscast to a listenership busy sleeping in on a national holiday.

[See the first A New Bid, A Whole New America; November 17; below.]