The FIFA World Cup bid process long ago descended into farce long ago. BBC’s long-threatened Panorama investigation, released a couple of days before the Big Bid Vote, is stark but not really surprising. We’ve all known for a while that we’re not dealing with angels here.
The program is still worth watching. Andrew Jennings makes it entertaining — too much so, at times. And you can see two amusing highlights:
- Doesn’t the FIFA Executive Committee room look like some sort of bunker that should be populated by James Bond supervillains?
- A Dutch lawmaker’s accent turns “situation” into “shituation.”
I found Part 2, embedded below, slightly more interesting because it goes beyond the predictable funneling of money and into more worrying questions for nations that are bidding on the Cup. FIFA’s list of requirements is more demanding than Mariah Carey’s backstage rider and less amusing than the Foo Fighters’ version. (Or, if you’re really into hard-core efforts to turn backstage riders into comedy gold, Iggy Pop’s.)
The Dutch, Jennings tells us, now believe they would lose money on the World Cup. Suffice it to say the conversation I had a couple of months ago on World Cup economics seems less relevant given FIFA’s desire to take a hefty share of the reward and no share of the risk.
As the BBC report drew closer to airing, much public fretting was made of whether the report would hinder England’s 2018 bid. What’s curious isn’t that the oddsmakers such as William Hill have now installed Russia has an overwhelming favorite ahead of England but that they also think so little of the USA’s bid for 2022. That link currently has the USA at 9-2 behind Qatar (1-2) and Australia (5-2). These odds haven’t changed in the wake of the FIFA report showing the English and American bids in far better shape than their competitors.
If the oddsmakers are correct, the backlash will be immense. FIFA will undoubtedly give its reasons, but who would doubt that the scandal-ridden panel of bigwigs simply opted for states that don’t have pesky traditions of journalistic scrutiny? Should future bids be limited to autocratic countries only?
We might even have to think the unthinkable: Would soccer be better off without FIFA?
The best precedent for such a move would be in chess, where Garry Kasparov led a breakaway from international body FIDE that lasted more than a decade. The title is more or less unified now, though world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen has thrown up his hands and walked away from a World Championship qualifying process that makes CONCACAF’s World Cup cycle look simple. (The re-election of president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who brazenly shut up supporters of reform-minded former world champion Anatoly Karpov, couldn’t have given Carlsen or anyone else much reassurance about FIDE’s commitment to fairness.)
Kasparov and Carlsen, though, have had legitimate claims to be the best of their eras without FIDE’s stamp of approval. That seems more difficult in soccer, particularly when any sort of sanctioned soccer ultimately goes up to the chain to the big boys in Zurich.
National federations can’t do much to challenge FIFA. They’re ultimately the local branches of the international organizer.
Perhaps a more imposing challenge could come from the giant European clubs. If Manchester United, Barcelona, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and company decide to take their ball and go elsewhere, players and fans might be willing to go with them. But the issues that Jennings investigates have little to do with the club game, so the incentive is lacking.
And the USA might have a lot to lose if FIFA’s sanction is devalued. U.S. Soccer and its sanctioned first division, MLS, already face the occasional lawsuit accusing them of misusing “monopoly” powers. Courts have been kind so far, but that’s not because they’re cognizant of the soccer wars of the 1930s and 1980s that destroyed pro soccer in this country.
Reform will most likely have to come from within. That hasn’t seemed plausible in recent months. But that might be because everyone is playing nicely to try to gain favor for their World Cup bids. If the oddsmakers are right, the losing bid nations will have little to lose by speaking up. And we the fans may have plenty to gain if they do.
Addendum: I made it through this whole post and forgot to give a hat tip to The Shin Guardian, which raises a couple of questions that show the uncomfortable position the USA bid is in. Like a cyclist blowing away the field in the drug scandal-ridden Tour de France, the winner of this contest will be asked whether the win was legitimate. Not sure I agree with notion of referring to “the Bradley debacle” as if everyone agrees what that might be, but clearly a lot of dreams will be dashed if the 2022 vote goes elsewhere.