Friday, December 3, 2010

Dreams shattered and bank accounts bulging? It’s not coming home.

The bookmakers and every pundit in the World were made to look like the rear end of a donkey yesterday with the announcement of Russia and Qatar as the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 respectively. Whilst Russia was probably deserving of a World Cup at some stage, Qatar is a truly incredible decision.

Much of the media (and hyperbole) I had absorbed in the run up to the vote was focused on 2018 and the England bid. It’s very easy for England to presume that they as ‘the home of football’ and with all the history and tradition has some God given right to host the World Cup – what rubbish. Personally I’d have said that any of the three supposed main votes, Russia, Spain/Portugal and England would have been deserving of the award and in that respect I don’t think Russia winning is a bad thing.

Russia does however have much to do in the interim to prove that it is a worthy host. Tackling issues such as the safety of supporters (which South Africa did successfully) and the racism in its football stadiums (something that is rampant in much of Eastern Europe regrettably) will be paramount. Whilst not maybe a reflection on its society as a whole, the rest of Europe has done much to cut out racism and sectarianism in football stadiums at least whereas Russia and the rest of the former Eastern Bloc (my apologies if I’m including innocent nations in such a generalization) have mainly turned a blind eye. Surely these are criteria which FIFA, the self appointed champion of the common global football fan must insist upon? Regardless, I am reasonably hopeful that Russia will put on a decent World Cup.

Now to Qatar, a country of 1.3 million people as of 2009 (Scotland is considered too small to hold the European Championships and we have over 5 million people) with a huge percentage of that number being expatriate workers. It is a whopping 11,437 square kilometers in size, or in real terms about the same size as one of the twenty two football pitches they are planning to erect. The average temperature in June is circa 41C/106F with an average precipitation of zero, so perfect for a World Cup then. What they do have however is money, and they have it in spades.

Russia is around 7th or 8th in terms of global oil reserves, Qatar around number 13 or 14. There is also a huge amount of natural gas and other natural resources to be considered - although sand doesn’t count. This is almost surely entirely coincidental or is it? FIFA has long been an autocracy that answers to absolutely no one. Within their statute, any National Association that takes any issue to any body outside of FIFA (such as an internationally accepted and recognized court of justice for instance) is automatically suspended or banned. Governments are also excluded from having any say whatsoever. Whilst one wishes to retain the integrity of sport to the exclusion of politics or any other malignant force, such an unquestionable and absolute power cannot be healthy either. It appears to almost everyone with any working of knowledge of the recent process that the bidding system was not in the least meritocratic.

Now this is not sour grapes on the awards as I am not from any of the nations who were not awarded (although yes I’d have liked to have seen England win). To enforce my impartiality I would add that it is an utter nonsense that the UK keeps separate Football Associations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together so that our little Island has a meaty four votes on general FIFA issues, quite ridiculous but then again so is FIFA.

Whilst I have not studied the individual presentations, I’m led to believe that the England one was superb and technically superior. Both Australia and the USA have tremendous infrastructure and experience of holding world class sporting events and are both emerging football nations. Spain boasts the current World and European Champions and the best domestic league in the world, with England not far behind in domestic terms at least.

FIFA will champion these awards as a blow struck for smaller or emerging nations, as sand in the eye (pun intended) for the arrogant old guard and establishment, but actually it is anything but. It is an award for money pure and simple and merely serves to enforce the opinions of most commentators that the FIFA system is corrupt and broken. Even if there was an agenda to support emerging nations, that in itself is wrong as the rules clearly state that each bid should be taken on its’ own merits. Blatter has already been strongly hinting that 2026 will be awarded to China (coincidentally also ‘quite rich’) and I would not bet money against that happening.

Both the IOC and FIFA ‘champion’ many causes and I am sure they are actually very effective in improving the lives of many underprivileged people, but here with Qatar we have a country with highly questionable human rights (look up Amnesty International and Qatar) and as across much of the Middle East, a very different treatment of women to what we are used to in the rest of the World (I am not trying to make judgments on Islam here, just pointing out the facts so no Fatwas please). None of this has been addressed and nor was it with the China Olympics in 2008. It’s interesting that the USA boycotted the Olympic Games of 1980 in Moscow protesting at the war in Afghanistan, but turned up in droves for Beijing, I think we all get the point.

FIFA will argue this in that they are a sporting association, not a political one but it is naïve in the extreme to say that the areas do not overlap and issues such as racism in football stadiums is one such example. Whether it was mere Western propaganda I am not sure but talk was rife of extreme hardship being exacted on the North Korean football team after their return home from this years’ World Cup. Sports and politics will always be intrinsically linked especially with issues such as human rights. Cricket has had awful problems over the Zimbabwe issue with neither the cricket boards nor the governments prepared to take a definitive stand.

Within the UK, my initial reaction to a failed bid would be that Panorama, the BBC and the Times would be castigated, blamed that their revelations regarding corruption within FIFA derailed the England bid. Whether it did or it did not, cannot be proven but now that greedy and lustful eyes have been averted from the prize of 2018, I suspect that both the public and media glare will not fall inwardly on Panorama and co. Now that everyone has the sensible head back on, the focus will be on a system which everyone is now ready to call as foul. The Russia award I can live with as they are a proud football nation with a long heritage and were it nor for the old Communist system and then the subsequent collapse, they would have surely hosted it before now. In a week however of ‘wikileaks’ and reports of a ‘Mafia State’ and all the assorted stories and the presence of incredibly wealthy men like Roman Abramovich, it is hard for any one to see this bidding process as anything other than tainted. I would however state that just because David Cameron is ‘British’ and went to a posh school doesn’t mean he is above skullduggery, he does it for a living after all. There is a huge and arrogant misconception that all new money is from ill gotten gains whereas old money is the natural order of things.

What everyone ultimately will want to know is - were any direct incentives made to FIFA delegates? I find it hard to believe that a tiny nation such as Qatar with absolutely no football heritage was, on a level playing field able to convince the entire world that they should host the World Cup - the biggest event on the planet bar none - in the face of the competition they had. I am not saying football should be discouraged in the Middle East, quite the reverse and I actually think ultimately they will host an aesthetically pleasing event. Whether however the country will develop sufficiently in the next twelve years to make it palatable to the majority of visiting fans I am not sure, but who knows, people do indeed change sometimes - well everyone except FIFA delegates that is.