by Brian Fobi
So, I woke up early Thursday morning with the dread of a man facing a death sentence; disaster seemed inevitable. In a few hours, FIFA would announce the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, and by 7 a.m., I already knew what to expect. A year ago, the betting favorites to host the tournament were England and the United States, respectively. By Wednesday, the lines had shifted dramatically, with Russia a prohibitive favorite (2/7, if you care about such things) for 2018 and Qatar heavily picked (2/5) to take the 2022 World Cup.
In the aftermath, American fans have been incandescent with rage on Internet chat boards, and people have second-guessed what we did, wondering how such a tiny dot of a country had outmaneuvered us. People pointed to Bill Clinton’s rambling presentation, or to the fact that Morgan Freeman accidentally skipped a page in his speech. Others in the media noted the slick CGI stadiums presented by the Qatar delegation and the presence of Zinedine Zidane and a host of paid celebrity endorsers, but it still made little sense. Sure, Qatar had very pretty stadiums rendered wonderfully on a computer, but the United States had twice as many rendered in brick and steel, not to mention every other logistical matter ironed out.
There was an unseemly aspect to it, as two petro-rich nations took the prize, despite real doubts over important aspects of their respective bids. In Sports Illustrated, Grant Wahl, a reporter not known for hyperbole, spoke what everyone suspected when he said, “Choosing Qatar and Russia is the biggest indictment possible that FIFA is not a clean organization. The message here is that petrodollars talk.”
Let me be blunt. In the next 12 years, all manner of defenses will be given for awarding Qatar the World Cup, but the simple fact remains that FIFA’s choice was not unorthodox, or outside the box, or about leaving a legacy. No, selecting Qatar is a completely indefensible decision. In fact, as a host nation, it is so incomprehensibly insufficient that, not only should it not have won, but no honest body should ever have taken it seriously. Before my making my larger point about where to go from here, it is important to understand that Americans have a right to be outraged. This is not sour grapes or being a sore loser; had the United States lost to Australia, for example, that might make sense. But, for several reasons Qatar’s bid simply does not pass muster.
First, size does matter. Qatar has a population the size of metropolitan Austin, Texas, three-fourths of whom are imported workers—mostly from Pakistan—who eke out meager livings. Final numbers are not yet available, but most estimates are that at least 350,000 people went to South Africa for the World Cup. If we assume similar numbers for Qatar, that means that a country of 1.7 million people will need to accommodate a 21 percent increase in its population overnight. As a point of comparison, this would be the equivalent of the United States having the entire nation of France show up for a month.
Moreover, there is a ludicrous aspect to the fact the airport will need to triple in size, nine additional stadiums will need to be built in a state the size of Connecticut, and one of the host cities does not even exist yet. Lusail, a city purportedly 10 miles north of Doha, currently exists only on paper. Qatar had such a dearth of hosts for potential matches that they had to create a city from scratch. While Qatar’s reported $50 billion budget may allow this, it is not ideal for spectators and fans and, at any rate, FIFA should have ethical reservations about burdening any nation with these kinds of white elephants.
Second, lest we forget, this is a soccer tournament, and some mention should be given to the fact that there would be an enormous competitive advantage to all of the nations placed in Group A along with Qatar. Critics of this argument note that in 1994 the United States was not a soccer power, nor was South Africa in 2010. Both of these nations had much more illustrious footballing pedigrees than Qatar, though. The USA had qualified on its own merits in 1990, and South Africa had also been to previous World Cups and won the African Cup of Nations. Qatar, the 89th-best team according to FIFA rankings, has never gone to a World Cup, has never placed in the top four in the Asian Cup and has not even won a match in the Asian Cup since 1988. Though 12 years is a long time to build a team, without an embarrassing bevy of Brazilian imports, Qatar certainly looks to get run over rather substantially in what has likely become realistically a three-team group.
Much has also been made of the heat, and rightly so. All of Qatar’s stadia are outdoor venues. The plan to keep players and, to a lesser extent, fans cool in games relies upon an as yet untested solar-powered carbon-neutral air conditioning system. Even supposing that it works, there still are real concerns about the health of players during training, and as several observers have pointed out, you cannot air condition the entire nation. With temperatures in June and July usually topping 110 degrees, this is a legitimate concern.
Finally, there are some vexing political complications. Qatar’s bid played up the tournament’s ability to transform a region. Qatar is among the more progressive states in the Middle East, but that is very faint praise indeed. Israel's mission to Doha was ejected last year, Israeli citizens still may not travel there under the terms of Qatar's agreements with other states, and its continued and open support of Hamas and Hizbullah make easing of tension with Israel unlikely in the immediate future. As a close female friend discovered when she attempted to travel to Doha last year, unmarried women under the age of 35 are typically required to have a male escort in order to receive entry. Israel performed well in its 2010 qualifying campaign, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that FIFA may well face the sticky situation of having to persuade Qatar to allow a team from a nation with which it has an openly hostile relationship to participate in contravention of its own laws. When faced with similar situations, such as Shahar Peer being barred from participating in the WTA’s Dubai Open because she was Israeli, many sports bodies have not shown the courage one would hope and expect.
England and the United States are rightly outraged to be on the outside looking in, and this is particularly vexing because there is real reason to doubt the legitimacy of the process. When, last month, reporters from England duped two FIFA Executive Committee members into soliciting bribes, what was shocking was not so much that they did it, but how eagerly and easily they made the demands. For more than a decade, very serious allegations of bribery and payouts have tainted FIFA. By all accounts, the bids for the United States and England were clean, fair and by the book, which sadly may have meant that they were, by the nature of the process, doomed from the start.
I understand fully that observers around the world will point to the anger in London and Chicago as evidence, not of a corrupt process, but of two petulant powers who are miffed that they did not get their way. Despite this, the United States and England are right to want a process that is transparent and fair. If the United States was punished because it did not line selectors’ pockets with lucre, or if England was penalized for having an honest and aggressive press, then these are legitimate areas of concern that go beyond just bruised egos.
The question now is, “Now what?” There are three paths that England and the United States can take. The first option is to simply acknowledge the nature of the game, accept the unwritten rules and develop a more, shall we say, creative approach to bringing in bids for major sporting events. The United States is not without sin when it comes to buying sporting events; the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics demonstrate this. That said, the aftermath of that scandal, which included mass resignations, Congressional hearings and federal prosecutions, demonstrated that if nothing else the United States government cares about bid impropriety.
Getting into the corruption business carries with it a particular danger for Americans, though. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act places uniquely stringent rules on Americans doing business overseas. In other words, Qatar does not violate its own laws by bribing or attempting to bride a FIFA official in Zurich, but an American would. This has often been a bone of contention among American businessmen who point out that what we call “bribery” is to others a very culturally specific idea for a practice of gift-based respect—showing that plays a crucial part in many African and Asian cultures. The argument goes that if buying a Rolls-Royce for a Tahitian or Cameroonian FIFA member would not violate the recipient’s own cultural sense of propriety, what harm is there in such a transaction? More aggressively put, it may be a net moral negative for Americans to be disadvantaged because federal regulations require us to more aggressively export our sense of morality beyond our shores.
Setting aside the question of its legality, morality or propriety, there is the very practical point that this is a fight we likely cannot win. After all, if Qatar is willing to spend $50 billion to host the World Cup, how much of their seemingly endless supply of petrodollars would they be willing to use to secure the votes of the people who decide the Cup’s host? The World Cup will be the biggest thing in the Qatar’s short history, and it could never mean that much to America. We would lose bidding wars because, though we have a lot more money, we tend not to want to waste it on bribes for the purposes of vanity projects such as the World Cup.
It would seem, then, that perhaps the only way forward is to work to clean up FIFA. The problem, though, is twofold. First, FIFA claims that it is not subject to the jurisdiction of any courts and will impose harsh sanctions on nations that attempt to subject FIFA to its laws and rules. There are some exceptions to this that FIFA has allowed, and many kinds of disputes are handled, by agreement, at the Court of Arbitration for Sports. That said, FIFA claims, as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has before it, that it may not be compelled to answer subpoenas or to appear before legislative tribunals such as Congressional Hearings. As a legal matter, the veracity of this claim is somewhat murky. In the 1990s, American sprinter Butch Reynolds was involved in a lengthy court battle with officials from track and field’s international governing body and the IOC. Though the case was ultimately dismissed on a procedural technicality regarding jurisdiction, the courts seemed to suggest that, while an international body such as the IOC may remain beyond the reach of American courts, its sponsors that do business in the United States can have their funds seized or attached.
Again, the law in this area remains murky, but if the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) wanted to engage in a legal battle over the propriety of the bid process, and it could meet certain jurisdictional thresholds, it could force FIFA to cooperate with such a suit because if it did not, FIFA could lose a default judgment and have the judgment taken directly from its sponsors, like Adidas, VISA and Budweiser that have substantial business interests in the United States.
If the USSF did not want to become involved, there are ways for the United States government to take on FIFA corruption. Statutes like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and RICO provide federal prosecutors with broad and powerful weapons for bringing down corruption, and because the United States takes a much more aggressive stance on the limits of its jurisdiction than other countries do, FIFA’s actions involving American entities (such as USSF) could well make it subject to US law. Again, there is the question of FIFA simply refusing to cooperate or threatening to ban the United States for interfering in FIFA functions, but such an approach would prove foolhardy since, ultimately, FIFA cannot win a game of chicken against the U.S. government because America is not as fearful of being suspended or expelled from FIFA as other nations might be, and the financial repercussions, which would include lost revenues from the United States (the largest purchaser of tickets to the last World Cup) and severe penalties for FIFA sponsors who do business in the United States, would utterly devastate FIFA.
The doomsday scenario would be that entities such as Adidas, McDonalds, VISA, Budweiser and all of the other FIFA sponsors might have to make a choice between continued association with FIFA and doing business in the United States. The choice here is obvious, and the double-hit of losing its sponsors and the enormous base of fans in the United States would be a steep price to pay—likely too steep.
The more substantial problem with attempting to clean up FIFA, though, is that it will likely backfire. An astute observer will note that the United States has not won an Olympic bid since the federal government investigated the IOC in 2002, with New York City losing out to London for 2012 and Chicago losing out to Rio de Janeiro for 2016. Many of the higher-ups in the IOC were apoplectic that they had to answer for their practices, and the suspicion is that the United States may not receive another Summer Olympics for a very long time as a way of punishing our temerity. One can imagine that if Sepp Blatter were dragged in front of Congress or, worse yet, into federal court, that the U.S. might never host another World Cup.
Neither cheating nor reforming FIFA through investigations are viable options, but there is one more radical move that could work to make international soccer more fair and open: The United States could simply leave FIFA. On its face, this may sound outrageous, but there is some precedent for this. In the early 1990s, the 14 biggest club teams in Europe banded together because of frustrations with how UEFA, the governing body of Europe, ran international competitions. The key breakthroughs for this group came when they began making plans to form their own midweek European league that would largely be beyond the control of UEFA, and for which UEFA would receive no revenues. Seeing this as a threat to its financial position, UEFA acceded to many of this group’s demands.
If the United States could muster enough support from among the most important soccer nations, then threatening to leave FIFA might produce productive results. Nations like England, Spain and Italy have long expressed frustrations that FIFA does not properly recognize that a very small minority of nations produce the overwhelming share of revenues. Add this to the growing concern over ethics, and it may be feasible to put together a bloc of five or six important nations willing to threaten leaving FIFA.
Indeed, the success of the Qatar bid presents the potential for an ominous future for FIFA’s larger members. More and more small federations are beginning to flex their muscles in international soccer. From the inclusion of more teams from marginal leagues in the Champions League, to the potential death of the United States-Mexico rivalry brought on by the desires of CONCACAF’s Lilliputian members to have a structure that allows them to play more games, the rise of micro-teams at both the club and national team level threatens the quality of the sport. The idea of one nation, one vote has proven to be quaint, in the worst sense of the word. That Barbados has the same number of votes as Germany, or that Qatar occupies equal (or, apparently, superior) station with the United States does not make sense, particularly given that the revenue that sustains international soccer comes from a few select large and wealthy nations to the many small poor nations. Twelve of the 13 largest FIFA sponsors are companies from the 15 wealthiest nations. Moreover, in terms of attendance at the last World Cup, the United States and England showed their support for the games by purchasing more tickets than fans from any other nation, save the host. The wealthy nations are dealt the double indignity of knowing that the money they put into FIFA will get redistributed to poorer federations, but these wealthy nations will receive no additional consideration for having supported the largely inept and corrupt football associations in the developing world. Roughly a billion dollars will get redirected by FIFA to development programs and poor associations. 
By threatening to break FIFA’s monopoly, large nations can restore order to the system. Transparent bidding that takes into account the quality of the product and the interests of players and fans and a leadership structure more akin to the United Nations, with something like a Soccer Security Council consisting of the nations that support the game financially and organizationally, is the only system that makes real sense going forward.
This is admittedly a real long shot, but in the aftermath of their disasters, the United States and England need to think about finding ways to take the kind of drastic steps needed to reform FIFA. Qatar’s successful bid is nothing short of an international scandal, and as the press in England has set their teeth to the issue, it seems likely that more impropriety will be uncovered. FIFA has to change, and if it will not change willingly, it must be forced to.