FIFA today announced that Russia would host the 2018 World Cup and … Qatar … would host the 2022 Cup. Obviously this is shocking news across the sporting and football worlds.
So why Russia and Qatar?
Russia, actually, makes a certain amount of sense. In the end, it seemed like the choice had come down to Russia and England. (The reports that England finished fourth out of fourth for 2018 bidding are stunning, and if true, really demonstrate an … interesting mindset on the part of the FIFA commissioners.) Russia is still largely untapped by football. The Russian Premier League is not yet at the level of La Liga, Serie A, or the English Premier League, but it certainly qualifies as a middle tier European football division.
Moreover, there's a sense that football is growing in popularity in the country, and there is money to be made in the market. Logistically, brand new stadiums, and enough viable locations for them, are something FIFA salivates over in the bidding process. Russia can provide that. Despite being heartbreaking for England (and the joint bids of Spain/Portugal and the Netherlands/Belgium), Russia has the potential to host a strong Cup.
The 2022 decision is more mystifying, but there are a few legitimate enticements Qatar offered. The idea of hosting the Cup in the Arab world is a plus, and by all accounts Qatar's bid presentation was astonishing -- promising to build 9 completely new stadiums, renovating three others, then donating them to third world countries after the tournament, and guaranteeing a Green Cup. But there's a reason why FIFA labeled Qatar's bid "high risk."
(Puzzling, England was recognized to have the best presentation, but that didn't factor into the 2018 decision. The corruption questions are already swirling -- and have been for some months. The New York Times' Jére Longman wrote up a good overview on Nov. 30. )
Qatar presents two major logistical problems that FIFA faces. Qatar is alleging their new stadiums -- open-air, a FIFA requirement -- will be equipped with advanced air conditioned technology, allowing for adequate playing conditions. But where will the players train? 12 stadiums isn't hardly enough. Unless the plan is to build a giant air-conditioned dome above the country, the heat factor -- consistently over 100 degrees farenheit in summer -- is a massive challenge.
Additionally, Qatar's lack of viable summer activities outside the games -- compared to its competitors -- is sigificant, and will deter a large amount of fans from making the trip. That is, after all, the ultimate purpose of the tournament -- promoting diversity and celebrating the fact that, for at least two months, we can put aside our differences and celebrate an event with universal interest. That's not possible with empty stadiums.
As a devoted United States soccer fan, greatly interested in the domestic (I actually watched the MLS playoffs in the last two seasons, and can say the 2009 championship game was arguably the most epic sporting event I've seen) and international game, this is a crushing blow to take. I am old enough to remember the passion of 1994, and young enough to come of age in an era where soccer took off in the United States. While there's no risk that my interest in soccer will wane, there is a chance that many casual followers will, if not tune out, be less engaged with the sport. It's impossible for me to separate that fact from my analysis -- I, like all other U.S. soccer fans today, feel gutted.
It had long been expected that the 2022 tournament was the United States' to lose, and for good reason: the 1994 World Cup was the most successful in the history of the competition (by far), soccer is growing leaps and bounds in the country and its domestic league has just finished its 15th year and is expanding. The country with the most tickets bought for the 2010 World Cup (besides host-country South Africa) was the United States, again by some margin. No infrastructure construction is required (and a number of new stadiums will be built anyway in the next 12 years), there are a huge amount of viable locations to host games, and, despite its struggles, the United States national team has proved itself a legitimate player in international tournaments. (Lest we forget that the United States, in the 2009 Confederation's Cup in South Africa, beat future World Cup winners Spain 2-0, ending their 35 game unbeaten streak?) Furthermore, the United States has qualified for the last six World Cups, a feat that only powerhouses Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Spain can match.
Qatar is 113th in FIFA's world football rankings. There's no history nor tradition of the beautiful game in the country. It has never qualified for a World Cup, finished 8th in the Asian Football Confederation's final qualifying round for 2010 -- and will receive an automatic bid for 2022. It has very little infrastructure in place, and that which will be built will be constructed by migrant laborers with very few rights. As recently as 2008, Qatar was in the lowest country tier in the State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report.
FIFA also made another, more practical, mistake -- the United States is a huge market, the growth potential of the sport is enormous in the country, and there's, ultimately, a massive amount of money to be made. The Arab world already loves football -- there are few regional viewers to gain.
Finally, following the 2010 and 2014 (South Africa, Brazil) Cups with two more question marks is a gamble. Now, China, rumored to have interest in hosting the 2026 Cup, will likely not have the chance to do so until 2036 (the same confederation can not host two Cups in a row). And if there are any slipups in the run-up to either 2018 or 2022, you can bet that Brits and Americans will be screaming, "I told you so."
On the bright side, I'd bet everything I have on the United States getting the 2026 or 2030 World Cup.
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