The date is Thursday December 2nd 2010. Yes, 2010. A day which is to decide our collective World Cup fates for the next twelve years as FIFA, in their infinite wisdom, decide to announce the hosts of both the 2018 and 2022 tournaments in a glitzy, star-studded event in Zurich. The fact that we’re still four years away from the NEXT World Cup in Brazil doesn’t seem to faze the hyperbolic media machine ramping into overdrive as both behemoths of the world game and newcomers alike battle it out against each other for the right to have a few million international visitors crammed onto their soil over a four week period in over a decades time. Of course, the talk is all of alleged corruption. After revelations of ‘bungs’ or ‘backhanders’ being thrown to the exalted 23 men on the voting panel there lies a cynical air over proceedings. Two FIFA panelists have already been removed yet mounting evidence suggests that more should follow including the always questionable figure of Jack Warner, from the very highest echelons of the FIFA rank and file. What is all about to unfold will no doubt be torn asunder by lawyers of the losing bids and perhaps even be dragged through the highest courts in an undignified, arbitrary fashion akin to Florida in 2000.
Will Qatari oil money trump other, more worthy footballing nations to host a World Cup in the extreme desert heat, making the complaints of Jack Charlton and his Irish team in 1994 about New York’s mid-day temperatures look churlish in comparison? And just what else is there for visiting fans to do between games? Having watched several friendlies played in Doha I have to hesitate as to there being any passion present whatsoever inside the stadium. Sure, spectators will be comfortable and whisked from venue to venue in streamlined, air-conditioned and clockwork fashion but Qatar will be left with a dozen or so huge empty stadiums once the tournament is over. Not that they care?
Speaking of efficiency between venues, Japan have the gall to be bidding for yet another World Cup, as do South Korea, so soon after hosting a tournament together in 2002. This surely rules them both out of serious contention despite their wonderful, futuristic intentions such as beaming the games holographically in 3-D to countless empty stadia around the world enabling fans to watch the game ‘as live’ wherever they may be. An astonishing prospect but it would be plain wrong if either country is awarded a second World Cup so soon.
Likewise the USA. Honestly, if the whole country were behind the efforts and truly wanted another World Cup (after also recently hosting in 1994), I believe the United States would trump all others but theirs seems a somewhat half-hearted appeal despite the presence of Bill Clinton, who already worked his magic in bringing it to America in 1994 after Colombia were deemed unworthy. The Americans are promising record gate-receipts at every game but the country is so vast that fans cannot ever congregate, to meet and enjoy the fan zone aspect of a truly international, cosmopolitan sporting event. Besides, they just don’t care enough.
Which, of the remaining bidders for 2022, brings us to Australia. In my opinion (which is probably completely wrong), Australia are the ones to beat. They even wheeled out Nicole Kidman onscreen to name it the ‘No Worries’ World Cup. Or, the ‘Hakuna Matata’ Cup. They’re also promising glorious sunshine, beaches and barbecues. How can FIFA resist? Especially when it also checks the box next to ‘exploring new soccer frontiers’. The relatively fledgling A-League is in its infancy and the boost provided by a World Cup on Aussie soil could prove immense. Trust me, we’ll all be seeing pictures of Brazilians dancing outside the Sydney Opera House and English fans being sunburnt on Bondi Beach in 2022.
So what of 2018? I’m not a fan of the current trend of ‘joint-bids’ in which two countries pool their collective resources to outbid other nations. Spain and Portugal could no doubt host a World Cup on their own terms, as Spain already have in 1982 and Portugal did with the Euro 2004 tournament. Why then award it to the whole Iberian peninsula instead of a solid one country with a strong enough personality to stamp its own impression on the game. Spanish hopes are high after apparently promising to split votes with a Qatar win for 2022, and some of their team have already boasted of claiming at least 7 or 8 votes of a necessary 12 votes-to-win target. If this is true, then they really are the favourites, just as the team itself was in South Africa 2010. They delivered then and perhaps they’ll deliver again now. Holland and Belgium have ‘buddied up’ too. The common feeling seems to be that they’ve no chance of hosting. Shame, as Belgium could use some help in qualifying (the hosts qualify automatically….something Qatar would be extremely grateful of too). I was in Holland and Belgium for the Euro 2000 tournament which was an orange-washed sea of fun (apart from the running street fights between English and German fans or the baton-wielding Belgian riot police). Dutch attitudes are notoriously laid back so no doubt they’ll take defeat with a knowing smile and nonchalant shrug especially as they appear to have already made themselves persona non grata with FIFA, having made public FIFA’s secretive list of ‘new laws & rules’ required to present a bid.
That just leaves England and Russia. Formidable opponents for very different reasons. Despite my obvious bias, I strongly believe a World Cup on English soil for the first time since 1966 is way overdue. The English invented the game as it is today. They have the finest League in the world with more professional clubs than anyone else. No other country in the world…..yes, the world, has the omnipresent passion for soccer as the English do. In short, we’re crazy for it. It’s down to the constant heartbreak we’ve suffered in the last 50 years. Like a lover who treats us badly that we just can’t walk away from despite the pain they always inflict. Call us gluttons for punishment if you will. But cast your eyes around any stadium at any World Cup match and no matter which two teams are battling it out I guarantee you’ll see the St George flag. Iran v Ghana? Australia v USA? N Korea v Kazakhstan? English fans will be there. In numbers. The relatively small geography of England lends itself to a tournament in which visiting fans can intermingle and easily travel to any and every venue without changing time zones or crossing borders. History and legacy is on the side of England. Are the corrupt 23?
Russia has a phenomenal new wealth forcing the bid through, and the domestic game appears to be thriving with teams such as Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk playing on a level playing field with some of Europes most exonerated clubs. Stadiums are being built in grandiose fashion too and the possibility of allowing soccer to explore yet another new territory (Russia has never hosted a World Cup despite its massive presence) must be very tempting to the FIFA coffers. My hunch is that it’s David Beckhams teary-eyed speech against the whole of Russia methinks (except their absent Prime Minister Putin).
Crikey, I’m feeling nervous! The announcements are now delayed. Apparently the voting is close and several rounds are being employed. Prince William and David Beckham look rather glum though, unlike the Qatari contingent who are beaming with smiles. I’d love it if in ten minutes time I hear the words “England will host the 2018 World Cup”. Of course, I’d have to return to my homeland for a month in the summer of ’18 but there are plenty friends and family with sofa’s on which to crash. I’ve already worked out a place to rest my weary, football-filled brain in Bristol, Newcastle, Sunderland, Manchester and London. Just need some friends in Moscow and Sydney now……
The wait is over. It appears it’s time to see just how wrong I am. Mr Blatter, the results please:
World Cup 2018 will be hosted by…………….Russia. The iron curtain has well and truly faded away. Despite Sepp Blatter calling England the “motherland of football” they seem to have fallen at the earliest hurdle. There will be no two million free bikes for fans in Holland and no football fiesta on the Costa Del Sol. Blatter then mistakenly calls Russia a continent, which of course it isn’t. It spans Europe and Asia. Either way, the Russians are coming.
World Cup 2022 is to be hosted by……uh-oh. It’s Qatar. A football tournament in a country that simply doesn’t play football. No leagues, no serious international set-up and certainly no decent players of note. FIFA have now clearly decided to use the World Cup as some sort of political development tool for countries most in need of infrastructure. All the games will be played within a 60km radius and all stadiums (which will be purpose-built) will then be packed up and shipped off to various third-world countries as Qatar will have no need for them. It’s a generous gesture that no doubt won several key votes among those FIFA delegates aiming for some kind of Nobel Peace Prize but also a ridiculous one. We can only guess the state of Middle Eastern affairs in the year 2022 (it was the only bid labelled as “High Risk”) but we can almost certainly pinpoint the searing heat that teams and fans alike will contend with in the arid, dry (in every sense) landscape just south of Saudi Arabia.
The results are also a sign of the newer world in which we move into. No longer the old heritage of Europe or even the millions of New World dollars but wealth beyond compare owned by those connected to that black gold…..oil. Russian oligarchs and Saudi tycoons have won the day. That bodes well for World Cups in India and China within the next century too. I can’t help but feel disappointed that football is being force-fed to developing nations as a tool for capitalism, wherein companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds flaunt their logos in full view of local inhabitants without the means or desire to buy them. We also learnt today that the world is getting flatter still. Since USA’94, then Japan/Korea’02 followed by South Africa’10 and now onto Russia’18 and Qatar’22 the world games can reach just about anywhere. Old institutions are dead and although Blatter and co might claim to be blazing a new political trail and using soccer for the greater good, it’s clear that money has spoken…nay shouted in Zurich today.
NB:- I later realised I mistakenly referred to Qatar as having no professional soccer league. This is patently untrue. What a huge disservice I did to such a well-established hotbed of football. Indeed, the “Qatar Stars League” boasts a whopping 12 teams! This is up from a previous 9 then 10 combatants. Indeed, almost every team has either changed name or merged with another in their very brief history and as recently as 2009 the ‘powers that be’ in Qatar announced that no team would be relegated that year….just ONE GAME before the final round of the season.
In conclusion, I have perhaps been a little harsh on Qatari football, not realizing the vast under-running soccer culture that seeps from the pores of every man, women and child in the region. And if you detect a hint of sarcasm in my writing I can assure you it’s completely intentional. Oh look….a shiny new stadium that looks like a boat! There’s another that looks like a sea-shell! Oh wow….you mean we arrive at the game by water taxi!? It’s so modern, so astonishing, so unexpected…..so…..utterly devoid of character, history or common sense.