I like football. Quite a lot.
So like hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of others, I waiting with great interest to see where the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cup tournaments would be held. 2018 was, in my opinion, too hard to call, with a lot of noise from England, absolute confidence from Spain and Portugal making you wonder how they could be so sure, and an ambitious bid from Russia. But 2022 I never had any doubt: surely Qatar was, as they say, a no-brainer?
So what, really, is all the fuss about? Today, the Qataris are defending themselves vigorously and accusing certain quarters of prejudice. I have to agree. Because whatever you think of the process, and whatever you think of FIFA, Qatar and Russia had something on their side that goes way beyond suspect financial practices. They had the best bids. By a long way. OK, I can see the eyebrows raised and hear the sharp intakes of breath, but really. There was no contest. Three things seem to be ignored by the stone-throwers when they take their pot shots at Qatar, and seem to have been ignored by some of the other bidding associations too:
1. What did FIFA want?
No, I don't mean bribes. Well, maybe a bit...but we'll come back to that. Let's look at their track record over the last few years. They've played it safe a few times (i.e. major football nations of Western Europe), but three of the last six World Cups have been in "new" markets. Not new in the sense that they'd never heard of football, but new in the sense that FIFA had not paid them much attention before. The USA in '94, Japan/South Korea in 2002, and of course South Africa in 2010. FIFA have shown for some time now that their priority is expanding (and exploiting) the popularity of the game in new markets. Moving away from traditional power bases of football has been the trend for the last two decades.
Let's not forget that all three of those "new" hosts were controversial, or that all three turned out pretty well: The USA managed to fill stadia (massive ones too) across thousands of miles and different time zones. And Ireland vs Italy in New York was a wonderful occasion (rather better than the final, it has to be said..) South Korea and Japan managed to qualify before they hosted, and work out the logistics of the first ever shared tournament. South Korea also played brilliantly, vindicating the argument for Asia as a rising football force. And South Africa managed to pass off without thousands of visitors being mugged and murdered as some had suggested.
Now another tournament in a challenging location beckons: 2014 in Brazil. Not that Brazil isn't of the football establishment - it is - but with new infrastructure requirements and a high crime rate, they have many of the challenges that South Africa had. Yet nobody's complaining because Brazil is Brazil. They've had a raw deal too: While Europe has had three tournaments out of the last six, South America which is the other giant in footballing terms, has had none. Even North America ("CONCACAF") has had two. So Brazil were definitely due one - and needed European support to get it, which brings me onto:
The principle slander of Qatar's bid has been that they "bribed" their way to victory. Of course in the absence of any actual evidence, that's taken real effort to sustain. The first accusation was that Qatar had coordinated illegally by making a "deal" with Spain/Portugal that they would bring votes to each other's bids. Shocking stuff. Yet the complaints about Spain's having done exactly that with Brazil were strangely muted in comparison: Spain/Portugal's confidence was largely born of the support they were expecting from all of the South American countries, because they had led the European support for Brazil 2014. So cutting a deal with Brazil is not such a big deal. Cutting a deal with Qatar though, would have been out of order. No wonder the Qataris are talking about prejudice. Also unmentioned was that as the representative of the British monarchy, Prince William was campaigning for both England and Australia at the same time.
The last laugh on that one, though, is with Russia. Spain/Portugal did indeed get some support from Latin America, but not from Europe. Which begs the question: why were all the bids for 2018 from Europe, and four out of five bids for 2022 from Asia? Are these confederations in complete disarray, or were some of these bids just to make up the numbers? When England lost out to Germany for the 2006 tournament, the word in the corridors was that you couldn't be expected to win without the support of your own confederation. Perhaps this time, the rule is that you can't win without some disposable competition from your own confederation.
Perhaps if you're determined to be sceptical, you'd say that if it's a bribery competition, Qatar and Russia were always the clear favourites. No comment. And neither should I without any evidence at all. But the one actual accusation of bribery against Qatar has been retracted - and even that, if you actually read the detail, was that the money would be paid to the federations, not to the individuals. The rest aren't really accusations at all: just resentment of Qatar's having spent a lot of money on their bid.
But on the point of making "donations" to federations that happen to have representatives on the Executive Committee, there are some stones being thrown from within some very fragile glass football stadiums. For example, why is it that out of all the developing countries in CONCACAF, and all the countries with strong links to the UK, the FA (English) gave so much attention to Trinidad & Tobago in their international development programmes? That country was the only recipient in its confederation of assistance from the FA during the two years leading up to the vote. Could that be anything to do with the Trinidadian Jack Warner's vice presidency of FIFA perhaps? Why wasn't the sore-losing American, Chuck Blazer*, complaining about that rather than the Qataris?
I am neither suggesting that bribes were paid, nor condoning such a thing. But let's not be naive: the process of "lobbying", "building relationships", "marketing", "outreach", "development" and other such cuddly terms, is about giving people stuff to persuade them to like you. And every bidding nation has done something. If the nations now complaining loudest had really thought FIFA was corrupt and that the bidding process would be decided by bribery, then why would they decide to bid? So that they could complain afterwards? Because they were paying too? Or because they never really thought that at all, and just needed an excuse after the event, to justify the failure of their half-hearted, dishonest and incompetent bids.
3. The bids
So this is the main point. Russia and Qatar had really, really good bids. The loudest protesters - England and the USA - didn't. It's as simple as that. Here are some obvious comparisons:
- England and the USA are the two richest and most established sporting markets in the World. The USA had the tournament in 1994.
- Russia is the biggest country in Europe, a rising economy, and has never hosted a major tournament. Qatar sees itself as representing the Middle East, where an estimated 130 million watched the last final on a Qatari TV station (almost as many as Western Europe), yet no country of the region in either Africa or Asia, has hosted the tournament.
- England and the USA promised "possible" new stadiums. As it stands, none of those "possible" projects have happened. In the case of England, Tottenham are still arguing about the Olympic stadium, Liverpool might now have the money but have lost their planning window, Plymouth Argyle are essentially bankrupt, and Nottingham Forest silent on their new plans. So no new development looks likely for now.
- Russia and Qatar will each build a complete new set of stadiums. Unequivocally promised. Not "subject to" or "potentially". They will be built.
- England and the USA will not be providing any new transport infrastructure. They have enough. England did promise some local minibus services for fans. But if you wanted to get from Plymouth to Newcastle, it would be on the same old train lines that British people complain about - and could cost about $300. The cost of flying is hard to predict!
- Russia will build completely new high-speed rail links between its major cities. Qatar will build a new rail system linking every stadium directly. All travel on these gleaming brand new services will be completely free to fans with match tickets.
Overall, among all the European bids for 2018, Russia was the stand-out: biggest market, biggest development potential, biggest commitments to the game and in its legacy, and least represented before now. And in Qatar's case, something similar: extraordinary commitments, a region again with massive interest that had never had any attention before, a special legacy (the new stadiums will have a modular design and be given away to developing nations afterwards), and let's not forget useless competition: the USA with no commitments at all that had the tournament only in '94. Japan and South Korea, separately, but who shared the tournament only in 2002. And Australia - like the USA a place where football is fifth choice, but without the compensating benefits of a large market to approach, or a strong women's game. Also terrible for TV scheduling and therefore most of the tournament's income.
So really, why the fuss about Qatar? The weather? Well, Mexico in '86 also had temperatures over 40 Celsius, and the problem of altitude to add. Qatar is at sea level, and will provide climate controlled stadiums, plus brand new air-conditioned transport for fans right up to the door, free of charge. Or maybe it's because Qatar doesn't allow alcohol. Except that's not true; visiting fans will find plenty of bars. Alcohol sales in the stadium itself are not permitted by FIFA anyway. Maybe it's because it will be hard to get visas. Except that Qatar have said they will give a visa to anyone with a ticket. And that they would welcome Israeli qualification - and their fans.
There is no question that a tournament in Qatar will be different to anything that went before it. Mexico '86 gave the "Mexican wave". Italia '90 made everyone whistle "Nessun Dorma". USA '94 finally got the Americans interested in the global game (slowly, but it stuck). Japan/South Korea made the first Asian stars. South Africa gave us the vuvuzela (well, perhaps we'll skip that one). So what will Qatar 2022 give us? I'm anticipating the first five star tournament. The most family-friendly. The air-conditioned indoor "fan zone". And of course, the only tournament in history where, if you wish and if you can get the tickets, you can attend every single game.
Not a single other bid came close to Qatar's in terms of ambition or originality. I'm delighted they are hosting 2022. It's time to stop the mud-slinging and get on board to enjoy the show. Of course with ambitious bids, they have to be delivered, and again there's a contrast: does anyone think that Qatar will fail to spend the money, really? As opposed to England: as the bidding process reached its conclusion with the Prime Minister, the heir to the throne and Lord Beckham in attendance, the UK was halving its committed funding to its own Olympic team, and handing over the as yet unfinished new stadium to a football team, as it had specifically promised not to do. Breaking promises over a major sporting event while you're bidding for another one is probably quite silly.
Anyway, regardless of what people say - silly rumours about re-scheduling the tournament for example - Qatar will get on with it, and they will succeed. I for one am delighted for them, and am thinking of booking a hotel room now. It's easy to resent the unfathomable wealth of this little country. But instead of getting bitter and resentful about it, as fans maybe we should be happy that so much of it is about to be spent on hosting our favourite game?
*The USA's member of the FIFA Executive Committee, Chuck Blazer, was the loudest campaigner against corruption. Yet he's currently under pressure both from both his own federation and confederation for "inappropriate" behaviour and comments. According to some reports, he didn't vote for his own country back in December (?!) Still, at least he's not a sand ni****...