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Saturday, January 8, 2011

FIFA picking Qatar is a slap in face to U.S.

mkaufman@MiamiHerald.com

Qatar, a country the size of Connecticut, has never qualified for a World Cup and has no soccer tradition to speak of; but its soccer officials sure do know how to maneuver past opponents in FIFA board rooms.
How else to explain why the FIFA executive committee chose Thursday to award the oil-rich Middle Eastern nation with the 2022 World Cup, ahead of the United States, Australia, Japan and Korea? Qatar's bid was classified as ``high risk'' by FIFA's own inspectors, while the U.S. bid was deemed the most technically and financially sound.
So how does a ``high risk'' bid beat a near-perfect bid by a 14-8 vote?
``It's politics, it's friendships and relationships, it's alliances, it's tactics,'' U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. ``There are far too many permutations, especially with two World Cups being decided on the same day, and I am not smart enough to figure out how all those played out in these two elections. It is clear and it has been widely reported over the past several months that there was the possibility of some alliances, and the numbers would seem to bear that out.''
NEW FRONTIERSYes, FIFA president Sepp Blatter boasted that the votes for Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 mean ``we are going to new lands.'' It is a noble thought to spread the game to new parts of the world. Certainly, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was a wonderful event.




But Qatar is not South Africa. Qatar's population (1.7 million) is 30 times smaller than South Africa's, making it the smallest nation to hold a World Cup. It is 100 times smaller geographically. South Africa has racial, religious and gender equal rights as part of its constitution, and soccer has been popular there for a long time, with rabid fans and a viable professional league. The same cannot be said of Qatar.
Qatar has only three of the required 12 stadiums at the moment, and the other nine are imaginary (they look fabulous on paper), whereas the United States has 18 stadiums of 76,000 seats each ready to go tomorrow. Qatar plans to spend $4 billion to build nine air-conditioned stadiums to combat temperatures that can soar to 120 degrees in the summer. The United States doesn't have that issue.
Qatar plans to spend another $50 billion on infrastructure to make it acceptable for the world's biggest sporting event. The United States already has the necessary roads, airports, hotels and security measures in place. The United States has experience with big events, having held numerous Olympics and the 1994 World Cup, which drew a record 3.6 million fans. An estimated 5 million would have attended in 2022.
About six months ago, the United States delivered to FIFA headquarters in Zurich a five-volume 1,250-page bid book, with every detail accounted for. South Korea's bid proposal weighed 551 pounds and Australia's was bound in kangaroo leather. These federations jumped through all the hoops FIFA set before them to prove they were worthy.
SPARE NOTHINGThey played host to FIFA inspection crews. When those inspectors came to Miami, they were flown around in helicopters so they could see the coastline. U.S. Soccer hired experts to do economic impact studies. The U.S. bid committee got everyone from President Obama to youth soccer players to jump on board, drumming up interest with an Internet petition (www.gousabid.com) that had fans in potential host cities competing to see who had more spirit, and believing it would really matter in FIFA's eyes. At final count, 1.25 million Americans had signed the petition.




Former President Clinton helped spearhead the U.S. effort, schmoozing with soccer dignitaries at the World Cup in South Africa, and again on the eve of the vote in Zurich. Actor Morgan Freeman, with his trusty booming voice, and U.S. soccer star Landon Donovan gave speeches to FIFA officials.
But when those 22 executive committee members voted secretly in that room Thursday (two other members were bounced for corruption), you couldn't help but wonder if the whole bid process was a charade, whether they even read the 1,250-page proposal. And you couldn't help but feel sorry for Gulati and everyone across the United States who worked tirelessly and earnestly on the bid over the past few years.
It was the second such blow in 18 months; the United States also lost out on the 2018 Olympics to Brazil.
As far as we know, U.S. Soccer played by the rules. It proved to have the best bid. But FIFA chose to take a risk, to make a statement. So why even open up the bidding to everyone? Why not just say, ``We want to take the World Cup to a new land,'' and let the new lands bid against each other. Why waste everyone else's time?
OTHERS SPURNEDEngland, Spain-Portugal and the Netherlands-Belgium probably are thinking the same thing. Russia had less infrastructure in place than any other European bidder and staging the tournament will require a $3.8 billion construction program for 13 stadiums in 11 host cities.




``Getting the right to host this event 12 years from now, with that sort of buildup time, was the equivalent of putting your foot on the accelerator and really taking a big jump,'' Gulati said. ``And so from that perspective, it's certainly an opportunity lost. Do I think we're going to get to where we want to get eventually? The answer is yes.''
But if the United States plans to hold a World Cup again, it might have to learn better boardroom tactics, develop closer friendships and soften anti-American sentiment. If none of that works, then it might have to bow out of the process because corruption is not an option.