Sports Nut

Sepp Blatter’s Soccer Cabal

Why the United States lost out on its bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

FIFA President Joseph Blatter

Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s twinkly pill bug of a president, wasted no time in welcoming the delegates to Thursday’s World Cup soiree. Standing behind a slick podium beneath a giant video screen, and looking like an elderly Keebler elf, he crinkled his eyes ingratiatingly: “Welcome to the house of football.” Nine groups had traveled to FIFA headquarters in Zurich to present their bids to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. “The home of FIFA is not only the house of football,” Blatter informed each of them, “but also the home of the 208 national associations who make up FIFA, one of which you are. So, feel home.”

The house of football, on this evidence, is a half-empty blue auditorium where vague, corporate elevator music floats around the ears of the old men who mingle in the aisles—the 22 members of FIFA’s Executive Committee, which chooses World Cup hosts in a secretive ceremony that’s been compared to the election of a new pope. No one could really “feel home” there, though the delegates from Russia (the 2018 host) and Qatar (2022) must at least have felt like they were in a nice hotel.

The big news in the United States, of course, was that the American bid to host in 2022 was defeated by a tiny, oil-drenched Gulf state that will be by far the smallest ever to host a World Cup. For moderately dedicated observers of FIFA, though, this decision wasn’t really a surprise. The American bid featured more potential revenue, more media exposure, and vastly more feasible planning than its Qatari counterpart. The infrastructure to host the tournament is already in place here, while Qatar will be starting from closer to scratch. But FIFA is both legendarily corrupt—in October, two members of the executive committee were suspended when the Sunday Times caught them offering to sell their votes, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg—and desperately in love with the idea of “legacy.” Its eyes light up for opaque governments, bizarre legal exemptions, huge construction projects, and regions that have never staged a major international soccer spectacle. The United States offered none of those things, while Qatar, like Russia and South Africa, offers them all.

The most revealing thing about the bid conference was the bewildering theater of the presentations, which churned through a singular mix of World Pavilion national stereotypes, marketing slogans, and MBA-speak. Entirely despite themselves, these pitches painted a plausibly accurate picture of how FIFA views the world. Scarcely had Australia’s surfing kangaroos faded from the screen when Japan launched a technophilic video that seemed to consist mostly of happy children doing their homework. Russia, which I had hoped would go entirely with a “Putin, crossbow hunter” theme, instead offered up sweeping landscape photography and bikinis. South Korea announced that the tournament would unify the peninsula—you mean the 2002 World Cup didn’t?—and strongly hinted that the selection of an alternate site would court the nuclear annihilation of the species (not to mention vast herds of surfing kangaroos).

On this front, I’m sorry to say, the best the United States could manage was a speech by Morgan Freeman, whose primary function in Zurich seemed to be to remind as many committee members of Nelson Mandela as possible. The American presentation zipped past a cheerful park-montage video about diversity before settling in for the important stuff: a recap of Landon Donovan’s self-actualizing life journey and an endless corporate seminar about the profit potential of an American tournament. (The executive committee, whose average age is something like 247, might have been looking for profits a little nearer to hand.) For the “legacy” portion of the presentation, Bill Clinton rhapsodized throatily about the accomplishments of the soccer-unrelated Clinton Foundation, while essentially making the argument that—because the United States needs no aid or supervision—FIFA could happily turn the World Cup over to us and go off and build a legacy somewhere else.

Of course, all the presentations had a serious point to make, or at least a unique quirk to exploit. Holland and Belgium’s joint bid revolved around the idea of the “green World Cup.” Japan promised to beam life-size holographic reproductions of the matches to stadiums around the world, meaning that instead of paying exorbitant prices to fly to Asia and watch humans play the tournament, millions of fans could pay exorbitant prices to stay at home and watch flickering computer graphics. The Qatari bid, which aimed a strong magnet at FIFA’s erogenous zone by promising the first-ever World Cup in the Middle East, also conjured up the idea of breathtaking stadiums that could be conveniently disassembled and donated to developing countries after the tournament. This could come in handy if FIFA decides to take the 2026 tournament to Outer Mongolia or the moon.

The most significant thing about the bid presentations, though, was their utter insignificance. While Blatter always seems genuinely gleeful at the helm of this kind of circus—”I could speak more and more,” he pouted before opening the first envelope, “but I have to announce it”—the meaningful politicking all took place off-camera, much of it well in advance. (England, whose presentation was spotless, earned just two votes and crashed out in the first round.) The stage show in Zurich was convened largely for the benefit of the press and the audience watching at home, which has to be reassured periodically that soccer is in the hands of pure-minded philanthropists, even as their actions scream otherwise.

And so Blatter stood behind the podium, panting and gleaming, and opened the envelopes that delivered the World Cup to two oil-rich countries that FIFA’s own inspection team had rated as among the riskiest candidates. “I am a happy president,” he cooed at the end. Why wouldn’t he be? He runs a super-rich, super-secret organization, which exports one astoundingly lucrative product and can afford to shrug off its critics. American soccer fans may be disappointed, but the House of Football and the House of Thani should get along just fine.

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