For all the allegations of corruption and rigged voting that have been leveled lately against FIFA, the much-maligned governing body of football certainly has a taste for adventure.
In taking the World Cup to the uncharted lands of Russia in 2018 and tiny but oil-wealthy Qatar in 2022, FIFA — like the International Olympic Committee — is leading the charge for the argument that sports can reshape history and influence the destinies and the way people and nations are seen by the rest of the world.
FIFA could have played it safe by going to the sport’s motherland of England or to the ready-built stadiums of the United States. Both promised minimal worry and lots of cash. But the desire of FIFA’s all-powerful, 74-year-old president, Sepp Blatter, to carry football and its considerable influence to promising and largely untapped markets won the day.
“We go to new lands,” said Blatter, who next June will seek another four-year presidential term.
In doing so, FIFA is marching in lockstep with the Olympics, which went to China for the first time in 2008, celebrating the U-turn over one generation from Maoism to frontier capitalism in the world’s most populous country. The IOC is now preparing for the first Olympics in South America, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, rewarding Brazil’s emergence as a major power. FIFA, meanwhile, is still basking in the praise it won for taking the World Cup to Africa for the first time in June, where vuvuzela-blowing black and white South Africans demonstrated how far they have moved on from apartheid.
Russia and Qatar are not without risk for FIFA — although with reserves of $1 billion and the sport wealthier and more popular than ever, it can afford a gamble or two.
In awarding two World Cups at the same time, FIFA aims to give itself more stable and long-term revenues from the tournament that underpins its wealth. It also means Blatter’s influence will outlive his presidency.
But it also leaves him and the 21 other VIPs on FIFA’s executive committee open to suspicions that bidding nations might have colluded to secure their votes.
The committee members voted behind closed doors and were furiously lobbied by statesmen, sheiks, sports stars and Britain’s Prince William, who tossed in a joke about his upcoming wedding.
Russia, already spending massively on the Sochi Winter Olympics it will host in 2014, now has the added and greater challenge of readying airports, modern stadiums, trains and other public works it will need not only to host 32 football teams and millions of visitors but also to transport them efficiently from cities spread from the Baltic Sea in the west to the Ural Mountains that form the European boundary with Asia.
This will mark the first time the world’s largest country, or even Eastern Europe, has organized a World Cup, a fact its team of lobbyists used to tweak FIFA voters’ consciences.
Qatar, with a population of 841,000, has not only never hosted a World Cup but not even played in one. FIFA inspectors who toured the country, which is half the size of Israel, cautioned that the intense heat in summer, when the tournament will be played, posed a potential health risk for players and fans.
Qatar allayed the fears of some — but not all — FIFA voters by promising that stadiums, training venues and areas for fans to party will be cooled with solar-powered air conditioning. But it has yet to be proven that the technology will work on such a broad scale, which prompted the American on FIFA’s committee, Chuck Blazer, to quip: “I don’t see how you can air-condition an entire country.”
But star U.S. player Landon Donovan expects Qatar’s heat-beating technology to work.
“I grew up in the desert, in California, and running in 100-degree heat was miserable and at times dangerous,” he said. “I’m sure it’s not cheap, the technology to do that, but I can’t imagine after all they put into this bid that they are not going to follow through and make sure that the World Cup is run very well.”
At malls in Doha, people gathered at electronic shops to watch the voting on television. With other 2022 bidders Australia, Japan and South Korea eliminated in earlier rounds, Qatar beat the United States in the final vote 14-8. There were roars when Blatter pulled “Qatar” out of the envelope. Qataris and others — including workers from south Asia — immediately started dancing in the streets along Doha’s Gulf waterfront, some blowing vuvuzelas that provided the droning soundtrack to South Africa’s World Cup.
Qatar is promising to spend $50 billion on infrastructure upgrades and $4 billion to build nine stadiums and renovate three others. It also is promising more sports for women — in contrast to the hostility shown to female athletes in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
The Qatari bid chairman, Sheik Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani, said he hopes its World Cup can change the “wrong perception” that women are oppressed in the Middle East.
Russia comfortably beat England and joint bids from Spain-Portugal and Belgium-Netherlands for 2018. Russia Prime Minister Vladimir Putin immediately hopped on a plane to Zurich, having earlier opted not to join the last-minute lobbying efforts.
Putin had said he didn’t want to pressure FIFA’s committee members, who, ahead of their vote, faced intense media scrutiny about alleged corruption and vote-trading. FIFA suspended two committee members for ethics rule-violations, leaving 22 voters. Putin may have won some over in taking their side against what he called a “clear” smear campaign.
AP Sports Writers Raf Casert, Rob Harris, Graham Dunbar and Chris Lehourites in Zurich contributed to this report.