Billion-dollar venues4 min read . Updated: 01 Dec 2010, 07:49 PM IST
As you read this, or a few hours hence, two dozen men sitting in a plush Zurich building will be deciding the fate of two football tournaments to be played eight and 12 years from now. In attendance will be princes and presidents, sheikhs and showbiz stars and even Batman, aka Vladimir Putin.
It’s the day Fifa (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) will choose the venues of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and, befitting the high stakes involved—a combined $10 billion (Rs46,000 crore) or so—the lead-in has been marked with drama, intrigue and controversy. One country’s work has been undermined by its own national TV channel; two bids could suffer because they defy Fifa’s preference for single-country entries; and two members of the voting committee have been sacked following bribery claims.
Yes, that “c" word—corruption—though again, you might say, it befits the stakes. In this season of intrigue and cynicism, one can see conspiracy theories everywhere—for example, in Hyundai’s extension last week of their massive World Cup sponsorship deal (they provide all the tournament transportation, from buses to limos to SUVs). Coincidentally, South Korea is one of the bidders for the 2022 tournament; coincidentally, again, the head of their national association is a former chairman of Hyundai and, to boot, is on the committee that will pick the 2022 venue.
I’d like to see the 2018 World Cup in England—the country that gave the world the game of football last hosted the tournament in 1966 and deserves another shot. English football, however abysmal its current on-field status, is the first point of contact for many football fans outside the game’s great powers; the names of Manchester United and Liverpool (and now Chelsea and Arsenal) are known in almost every country where a ball is kicked in anger, and the club jerseys aren’t far behind. Add to that an existing infrastructure—software and hardware—and you have a plug-and-play tournament. William and Harry deserve some reward for their campaigning, which included the excruciating pain of sitting through the worst game of the 2010 World Cup (England 0, Algeria 0).
The neutrals’ choice is Iberia, which has formed a potentially lethal coalition with Qatar that could override concerns over the peninsula’s economic problems. That leaves Russia, the bookies’ favourite and reportedly the one that Sepp Blatter, Fifa’s uber boss, has set his heart on. Geography and infrastructure would be problems but bank on the Russians putting in a compelling bid.
It’s a close call for 2022 but among the three contenders—the US, Australia and Qatar—I’d plump for the first. Qatar has the political edge but is ruled out, in my reckoning, by the weather: A football tournament at the height of the Gulf summer is just not viable. All their money can’t cut the heat—and even if it could, the cost, both financial and ecological, would be unjustifiable. Even for the World Cup. That’s before we get to the size of the country and concerns over its conservative laws (alcohol would be off the menu).
Australia? Worthy challengers but the “tyranny of distance"—including the time zone—and football’s relatively lowly status work against it. I’d add the weather too—we survived South Africa, but my abiding memory of the final is of an AOL reporter, a hardbitten American, sitting next to me saying he’d never felt so cold in his life.
The US would get my vote because of how it has embraced football—that AOL reporter was kept alive through the final only by his sheer delight at being there, and the realization that plenty of people back home were waiting for his report. The sport is more organic Stateside than it is in Qatar and Australia, especially at the junior and women’s levels; more than 24 million people watched the World Cup final across the country, and the overall tournament viewing figures were up 41% over 2006. They take their sport really seriously and football is no different; they may not have the humour of England, the politico-cultural divide of Spain or the geographical rivalries of Italy, but they compensate with their nerdy, stats-driven seriousness. Add to that the superb facilities on the field and off it (any wonder why Wayne Rooney travelled to Nike Town, Oregon, to recuperate?) and the matchless peripherals.
Of course, there’s Sunil Gulati, the president of US Soccer who teaches economics at Columbia. Widely recognized as the driving force behind the country’s steady soccer-ization since it hosted the 1994 World Cup, he’s already planning how to use the 12-year “runway"—the lead time the designated hosts have before the show hits town—to maximize its effect on the country’s 300 million people.
I’m sure my thoughts aren’t congruent to those of the 22 men who will make those big calls; billion-dollar decisions are based on realpolitik, not personal desires. While Thursday’s deliberations are likely to be fractious, the choice of the 2026 host seems pretty clear: with the race open to Asia and Africa, the overwhelming favourite is China. Unless India can engineer some late, late swing.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at email@example.com