Who Will Host the 2018 World Cup?

The most secretive bidding process in sports.

Three years ago, when the bidding to host the World Cups of 2018 and 2022 was just getting going, a lobbyist explained to me how the decisions would be made. Over lunch at the International Football Arena in Zurich—a cozy annual gathering of the game’s power brokers—he led me on to the terrace for a quiet word. There, he emphasised that what “the world” thought about the various bidding countries wouldn’t matter much. Instead, the only voters were “24 old men.” He meant the members of Fifa’s executive committee (Exco), who will choose the hosts for 2018 and 2022 in Zurich this Thursday. The lobbyist and his partner, he added, “know those 24 men better than anyone. We know their strengths, we know their weaknesses.”

That lobbyist has since switched to work for a different bidding country. And the number of old men has dropped to 22, after Fifa, the global football authority, suspended two Exco members. One, Amos Adamu of Nigeria, had allegedly asked undercover newspaper reporters for money in exchange for his vote, and another, Tahiti’s Reynald Temarii, was accused of breaching Fifa’s rules on loyalty and confidentiality in the same sting. In short, someone found their weaknesses. Both men have said they will appeal.

Yet the lobbyist’s point stands. The campaign to host these World Cups is much like a conclave of cardinals choosing a pope. It’s a campaign waged mostly behind firmly closed doors, and the very secrecy of the process, and the desperation of the nine bidders to win, invites corruption. Despite the secrecy, we do know many of the considerations that will sway these 22 men. That allows us to guess which two bidders will be dancing on the streets of Zurich come Dec. 2.

Fifa plans to choose a European host for 2018, and a non-European one for 2022. One of Exco’s considerations, obviously, is the quality of bids. The 22 men will want to know which hosts can stage a competent World Cup. However, South Africa’s World Cup this year put that issue to bed somewhat. The developing country did a fine job: nice stadiums, pretty good infrastructure, and Fifa doesn’t care about the white elephants now rotting in the sun. If South Africa could do it, the Exco members will reason, then every bidder this time probably could too. The only bidder that emerged from Fifa’s evaluation reports looking bruised was Qatar. The tiny desert state, the report suggested, has neither the climate nor the space for the perfect World Cup. But the American and Dutch-Belgian bids also suffered for not giving Fifa enough government guarantees. Fifa likes to be granted the right to do what it likes in a host country.

However, the quality of bid is just one consideration among many. Fifa also likes using World Cups to open new markets, to fill in the “white spots” on football’s map. This is where Russia looks good. It has less infrastructure in place than any other European bidder, but unlike its rivals it is an ­emerging football market. For 2022, Qatar, Australia and the US can make the same claim. Japan and South Korea might have too, except that they ­co-hosted a World Cup just eight years ago, and so they hardly look “new.” When bidders and lobbyists gossip in hotel bars, they usually dismiss the Japanese and Korean bids (as well as the Dutch-Belgian one for 2018) as near no-hopers.

The great new football market, of course, is China. The country isn’t bidding now, but Sepp Blatter, Fifa’s president, is keen for it to host a World Cup, and that fact could shape the vote for 2022. Simply put: if an Asian country gets 2022, then China might have to wait until 2034 before the World Cup could return to Asia. That could induce Fifa to give 2022 to the US, so that China could have 2026. In July, Wei Di, head of China’s Football Association, duly said: “We are considering 2026.” That angered the Asian bidders for 2022, and Chinese officials appear to have reassured them behind closed doors that China didn’t really want 2026. Significantly though, China hasn’t climbed down in public. Quite likely, Wei Di’s remarks were a signal to Fifa to bear China in mind for 2026. If so, and if Exco listens, it’s good news for the US.

Only the purest of Exco members—Michel Platini, for instance—will vote strictly on quality of bid and the prospect of new markets. Others will be swayed by more political, but equally legitimate, concerns. Most Exco members want something for their votes: often, a vote for their own country. Mohamed bin Hammam, the Qatari Exco member, put this frankly at last month’s Leaders in Football conference in London. “I will be naturally looking to the interests of Qatar,” he said. “All the bidders are telling me, ‘Okay, if you vote for me I will vote for you.’ That must not be surprising to anybody.” He admitted he wouldn’t necessarily vote for the “best” bid, but one that served Qatar’s interests.

The voting process—choosing two hosts on one day—practically invites deal-making between voters. Explicit deals are illegal— “You vote for me for 2018, and I’ll vote for you for 2022” —but tacit ones will happen.

That points to another consideration for many Exco members: friendship. Friend is their word for long-standing ally. The three South American voters will surely support their “friend” Spain, for instance. By contrast, the Dutch-Belgians and the English are short of “friends” in football.

Lobbying can win you friends. Russia has the best lobbyist of any bid: Premier Vladimir Putin. He has been buttonholing some very powerful people, inside and beyond Fifa, to talk about 2018. Putin helped clinch the winter Olympics of 2014 for the Russian city Sochi, and will attempt the same in Zurich next week.

All these considerations might sound tacky, but they are reasonably above-board. However, more venal considerations matter too. As the lobbyist told me, many Exco members are old: some won’t be alive in 2022, and may not care much whether the tournament is a roaring success or not, while others may see this as their last chance to extract big favors. Now the world is courting them. From Dec. 3 they will be nonentities. They want something out of this vote.

That something might simply be a nice trip. Many countries have offered Exco members very comfortable visits to inspect their facilities. That is quite legitimate, but a five-star trip can be a voting incentive in itself. Other Exco members want something for their football federations. That’s why some bidding countries have sent their national teams to play friendlies in improbable places—places that happen to have Exco members. One Exco voter asked a bidding country to pay for a team coach for his national side. Again, a perfectly legal inducement: it’s called “promoting football development.”

As neither bidders nor Exco members like to say much about these sorts of favors, we are left to guess how common they are. Interestingly, when a British Sunday newspaper pretended to offer both Temarii and Adamu money for their votes, both men mentioned having received offers from other bidders—in Temarii’s case, worth several million dollars. The scandal spooked Fifa and all the bidders. Claudio Sulser, head of Fifa’s ethics committee, says: “The damage to Fifa is great.” Recently, bidders have been so scared of getting caught in new ­scandals that hardly anyone has dared say anything in public. The bid leaders have become diplomats rather than salesmen. That has made the race yet more secretive.

Secrecy will shroud even the day itself. The 22 men will hand their votes in sealed envelopes to consultants from KPMG. After each round, the candidates with the fewest votes will be eliminated, until one country gets a majority. Afterwards, all Exco members will be able to tell all bidders that they voted for them, and nobody will know for sure.

None of the 22 men, not even Sepp Blatter, knows who will win. Yet the best current guesses of the lobbyists and bidders around the coffee tables are Russia for 2018 and the U.S. for 2022. (True, William Hill has Qatar as runaway favorite for 2022, but the bookmaker explains that very few punters have bet on the 2022 race, and so a couple of large-ish bets on Qatar would be enough to skew the odds.) When it’s all done, Fifa can go away and reform the voting process so that the whole thing is a bit less secretive and embarrassing when it next chooses a host, by which time many of today’s Exco members will be long past caring.

The contenders: Sizing up the rival bids

Odds 10/11
Putin’s clout puts Europe’s biggest emerging football economy in front

The probable frontrunner for 2018, Russia is lucky that South Africa’s World Cup worked: the presumption now is that Russia could handle a World Cup too. Building all those stadiums and infrastructure would cost Russia many billions, but Fifa doesn’t mind governments wasting taxpayers’ money.

And going to Russia would be exciting. Alone among the European bidders, it is an emerging football economy. Despite the country’s population of 142m, Russia’s top division has lower average attendances per game (12,500 spectators) than the Scottish Premier League. Fifa likes to fill such footballing “white spots.”

There are strikes against Russia. Its tournament promises to transport visitors vast distances across some routes that don’t exist yet. Fifa officials would have to manage a third consecutive “difficult” World Cup, after South Africa and Brazil. And Russia is hardly the sort of cuddly democracy that would bolster Fifa’s image.

Nonetheless, the country’s strongman, Vladimir Putin, is an asset to Russia’s bid. Alexei Sorokin, the bid’s charming chief executive, said at the latest International Football Arena conference that Putin “inspires” the bidding team. When the Russian premier phones an Exco member, the member probably listens. Crucially, Putin impresses Blatter.

Ready, willing … and deeply unpopular within Fifa. Intrusive media are a nuisance, too.

England is simultaneously the European bidder best prepared to host a World Cup and the one least liked within Fifa. For decades, the English problem within football was perceived arrogance. Its talk about inventing the game didn’t go down well in the post-colonial world, particularly when English officials were seen as doing little to help administer international football. Some Exco members also feel that the country with the world’s richest league has enough of the spoils already.

Recently, England has managed to irritate Fifa through its newspapers. First the Mail on Sunday secretly taped Lord Triesman, then head of England’s bid, while he spouted bizarre conspiracy theories about Russia and Spain. Triesman resigned, but last month the Sunday Times caught two Exco members apparently asking for inducements to sway their votes. Blatter commented: “Why would an English newspaper do that? We talk about fair play in sport. That must apply to the media too.”

The English bidders hope to divert attention to their bid itself: they promise a tournament in legendary stadiums, mostly ready today, in the world’s most lucrative football market. That pitch probably won’t be enough, particularly not if Exco members want to pick the US for 2022. Two wealthy English-speaking countries would be too many for some Exco types.

Smooth operators, but Portugal’s economy is a concern

This is the invisible bid. It features few business cards, whizzo Web sites or officials who speak English. The Iberians don’t seem to care about communicating with the world. Instead, they are using their excellent connections to communicate with 22 Exco members. Their bid’s co-chairman, Ángel María Villar Llona, is a vice-president of Exco, and has many dear friends in football. Spain and Portugal surely also have the three South American Exco votes nicely locked up.

The bid long lacked an inspirational story—why come to Iberia now?—but that hole was plugged by Spain’s victory in South Africa this year. Having the era’s dominant football team should be inspiration enough.

Fifa’s ethics committee this month cleared the Iberian bid of allegations of forming a voting bloc with Qatar. Yet this week the bid’s chief executive, Miguel Angel Lopez, told Bloomberg that Spain and Portugal already had “more or less” eight votes. He said he was “moderately confident” of winning.

Yet Spain’s skill on the pitch and behind the scenes may not suffice. Fifa’s evaluation report voices doubts about joint bids. That’s even more of an issue now that Portugal’s government is hard-up. Currently, the Iberians, like England, are viewed as dangerous outsiders chasing Russia.

Their “green” World Cup is the nice-but-naive outsider

Everyone in the bidding race seems to feel that these are two nice countries that would organise a fine World Cup. However, hardly anyone thinks they will get it.

Firstly, the Low Countries haven’t told an inspiring story. This is unfortunate, because they do have one: the Dutch and Belgians would be role models for smaller countries hoping to host World Cups jointly. The bid’s chief executive Harry Been did tell last month’s Leaders in Football conference in London that only about 10 countries on earth can now host a World Cup alone, so “you must have a showcase for joint bids.” Another bid official predicts a surprising number of votes from Exco members from smaller countries.

But that’s unlikely. Mostly, the Low Countries have talked about their compact and green World Cup. Sadly, sustainability stirs few hearts inside Fifa. And the Dutch in particular appear naive about lobbying. They seem to think the Exco should choose them simply because their bid is good. That isn’t how the world works. Moreover, several Dutch political parties have doubts about Fifa and about the wisdom of hosting. Fifa’s bid evaluation says: “The necessary government support has not been secured.” Currently, only the Belgian Exco member Michel D’Hooghe seems certain to vote for this bid.


A formidable bid, but Homeland Security might not extend a welcome to every nation’s fans

Economically, this looks the perfect bid. The Unites States hits Fifa’s two sweet spots: it’s both a large soccer market and a growing one. Fifa likes to grow the soccer economy. The two biggest emerging football markets are the Unites States and China. Each new World Cup draws more American viewers, and that’s with tournaments held in distant time zones. If Fifa goes to the United States in 2022, it can go to China in 2026, whereas if it goes Asian in 2022 then China will be off the table for years.

The United States is far from a shoo-in. Sunil Gulati, who chairs the American bid, admits: “I think our biggest challenge has probably been the World Cup that we hosted, in 1994.” Qatar and Australia can bill themselves as virgin soil. Furthermore, notes Fifa’s evaluation report on the United States, “the necessary government support has not been documented” yet. That exposes Fifa to “medium” legal risk. One issue is that the American government wouldn’t give visas to all foreigners who buy match tickets. It’s currently easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a Nigerian, say, to enter the United States.

The American stadiums are ready. Bill Clinton will be in Zurich glad-handing. Anyone unsure of what Vice President Joe Biden does should see all the work he’s done for 2022. The U.S. looks the logical choice. However, other bidders probably have more friends inside Fifa.

The “no worries” bid. But given the time zones, not that many TV viewers, either.

“Completing the Dream. The last continent”, says a slide in Australia’s presentation. The country is undeniably a “white spot” on the football map. Australians are only just starting to fall for soccer en masse, and they have never hosted a World Cup. But they have hosted many other sports tournaments, and would surely do this one well. Ben Buckley, the Aussie bid’s chief executive, calls it the “no worries” World Cup. Crucially, too, Australia’s bid is well-connected inside Fifa. Peter Hargitay, a Swiss-Hungarian consultant to the bid, is a close friend of Blatter, and refers to many Exco members by their first names. Fedor Radmann, a German consultant to Australia, is old friends with Germany’s influential Exco member Franz Beckenbauer.

Australia, however, has the most disadvantageous time zones of any bidding nation. Fifa’s main source of income is selling TV rights to World Cups, and the bulk of that money still comes from Europe and the Americas. If Australia hosted, fewer viewers in those regions would watch at unsociable hours, and Fifa would take a financial hit. Australia argues that by 2022 the Chinese and Indian football markets will be hugely significant, but that requires Fifa to take a gamble with its main earner. Besides, even Mumbai is five-and-a-half hours off Sydney time; and if China will be such a big market, then logic suggests that Fifa should give China the World Cup instead.

The Middle East intrigues, but this is the most daring option—and the most controversial

Don’t put too much faith in William Hill’s betting odds that make Qatar the massive favorite for 2022. Through no fault of its own, the oil-rich mini-state has suffered from the recent scandals to afflict the bidding process. There’s no suggestion that Qatar offered any Exco members illegal inducements, yet if, after this scandal, Exco anoints Qatar then Fifa risks looking tacky.

Holding a World Cup on a tiny stretch of desert would be daring. Qatar’s biggest disadvantage, however, is its weather. The extreme heat poses “a potential health risk for players, officials, the Fifa family and spectators”, says the evaluation report. Qatar promises to build cooled stadiums and training grounds for the World Cup.

Nonetheless, Doha is a city hardly famed for its range of entertainment options, and 10 Qatari stadiums would be in a radius of just 25km-30km. Harold Mayne-Nicholls, chairman of Fifa’s bid inspectors, said that holding a World Cup in such a small territory posed “logistical challenges.” That was a departure from the usual polite noises made by bid inspectors, and perhaps a hint that Fifa will go elsewhere.

On the upside, this would be the first World Cup in the Middle East, in a handy time zone for European viewers. And the Qatari Exco member Mohamed bin Hammam, chairman of the Asian Football Confederation, is a powerful man. Qatar has a better chance than Japan and Korea, but probably ranks behind the US and Australia.

A cheeky outsider, but its idea for 3D TV fan fests could revolutionize the event

Only eight years after co-hosting a tournament with South Korea, Japan is back again. Most Exco members think that’s a bit soon.

Searching for an inspirational story to tell, Japan is promising to co-host the tournament with the world. It would set up “fan fests” in 208 countries, where an estimated 360 million people could watch the games in 3D. This is such a good idea that whoever ends up hosting in 2022 will probably steal it.

Hardly anyone expects Japan to win. Yet the country was probably smart to bid: If Exco turns you down, it will probably give you something else to compensate—a lesser tournament, say.

Planned to invite North Korea to co-host. Then came last week’s outbreak of hostilities.

See Japan. But at least South Korea came up with an inspirational story: If it hosted the World Cup, some matches would be played in North Korea. That would not have been easy: The North’s Dear Leader typically doesn’t even let his subjects watch the World Cup on TV.

The negotiations may be academic now. World Cup games in Pyongyang seem a particularly unlikely prospect after the two countries began shooting at each other last week.

This article originally appeared in the Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.