The Cup Running Over

November 22, 2010 9:35 AM

International Intrigue: Will Russia, England, or Spain-Portugal Host the 2018 World Cup?

It involves global intrigue, a bitter clash among some of the world's leading powers, even a whiff of financial scandal. A spy incident or the latest trade war? No, it's just one of the world's biggest sports competitions - one not even played on a field but in a proverbial smoke-filled room in Zurich. That's where the 22 representatives from FIFA - the world soccer organization - will gather from all over the world in a little over a week to decide who gets to host the 2018 and 2022 soccer World Cups. (Brazil already has 2014.)

"December 2 is going to be an important day, not just for football but for international politics," says FIFA head Sepp Blatter, and for once he's right. "We have nine bids and they will send prime ministers, heads of government, and high-ranking people in the field of politics."
Sure, there's glory for the winners but there's also the dubious honor of losing hundreds of millions - if not billions - in staging the events at a time when money isn't exactly flowing. But for some, there is an upside. Since home teams usually perform wildly over their heads, fans of England and the US, not to mention Qatar, know that hosting a Cup is the only way they're ever going to do well, at least in our lifetimes. Meanwhile soccer journalists, frustrated travel writers all, get to dream for the next decade or so where they'll spend two Junes.
This time around, FIFA made the unprecedented decision to choose the hosts of two Cups at once, then made the inexplicable further decision to declare initially that any horse-trading - "if you and your friends vote for me in 2018, we'll vote for you in 2022" - was unethical. Few could quite understand why, since legislators do this all the time and it's not like the 22 representatives who gather from around the world to decide these things are purer than Caesar's wife. Already two are under suspension for charges that they entertained the prospect of receiving bribes, if not for themselves then for their country (after a UK Times sting). That's why only 22 reps will vote this time, not the customary 24. And in the past, there have been incidents, such as one that occurred in the contest for the 2006 Cup, when the delegate from Oceania suddenly exempted himself from the final ballot, allowing Germany to edge South Africa as host, 12-11. (In a tie, South Africa would have won because the FIFA head favored its bid.)
In any event, the participants have divided themselves into two groups - the European contenders who will compete for 2018 - and everyone else, contending for 2022. We'll look at the 2018 horse race this time, in the reverse order of our predicted chance of winning.


Bottom Line: Deserves better

Co-hosted the highly successful 2000 European soccer championship. Have never hosted before, even though Holland is one of the powers in the sport. There don't seem to be any financial constraints involved since most of the infrastructure is already there. Nice coffee bars too.

It's said co-hosting bids are frowned upon, even though the formula seemed to work in 2002 with Japan and South Korea. Belgium could fall apart before 2018, thanks to conflicts between the French and Flemish-speaking portions. Both nations are relatively small and even combined, would be one of the smallest nations to host ever. Some might think a Low Country tournament would be too much like the German 2006 World Cup (though the Dutch and Belgians certainly don't think so). FIFA would have to give out two automatic bids rather than one to the host countries. Eindhoven as the lead city in the bid? What were they thinking?

Prediction: The co-hosts would offer a good Cup and this bid is a wonderful compromise choice. (Think Warren Harding in 1920.) The problem is the way the balloting works; after each round the bottom finisher is dropped (which would have eliminated Harding early). The Dutch-Belgians don't have that many close ties to nations around the world, which is what happens when you don't speak English and your 19th century imperialistic reach was limited, at least in comparison with the other contenders. Hard to see how this bid survives the first round.


Bottom Line: Overrated as always

Birthplace of soccer (or so they say), with infrastructure already in place, especially after London hosts the summer Olympics in 2012. Last hosted in 1966. Speaks English - a huge advantage in an Internet world.

Disadvantages: Everyone would have to put up with the tabloid English press for the next eight years --  which has already distinguished itself by staging the sting that led to the suspension of the two FIFA delegates. (Many might consider this a public service but not if you're a FIFA delegate; FIFA head Sepp Blatter accused the English press of constantly "trying to set traps" and said that it -- meaning the press, not the corruption --was a "deeply rooted problem.") Everyone would also have to listen for eight years to the English talk about how "soccer is coming home," etc. etc. etc. In other words, most of the disadvantages come down to the fact that they're English. Formally complained to FIFA when a Russian official criticized London crime and English drinking (an attack technically against the rules), then withdrew the complaint when the English were accused of just being over-sensitive. If delegates think the US or Australia is going to win the 2022 contest (a likelihood), they may not want to award the Cup to two English-speaking nations in a row. Would be the first time a Cup game is played in a place called Milton Keynes. Last time, too.

Prediction: The English have convinced themselves that they deserve to win the hosting bid hands down, but then, they manage to talk themselves into the notion every four years that their team is going to win the Cup too. No bid will polarize the voters as much, which means that while England has a decent chance to get to the last round, it also has a better than decent shot to lose it there. The English always underperform at World Cups, and they probably will here too.


Bottom Line: A real contender

Two great soccer nations, with the Spanish currently ranked among the greatest teams of all-time. (Reigning World Cup and European champions.) Most of the infrastructure already there. Journalists can spend a month in Barca and pretend to be covering the contests elsewhere.

Disadvantages: Very hot in the summer. Spain has already hosted in 1982, though the tournament went off well. See the Holland-Belgium entry about the sentiments concerning co-hosting, though Portugal and Spain would both probably qualify anyway. Accused of "colluding" (vote trading) with Qatar, a contender for 2022, and then absolved.

Prediction: A strong bid, bolstered by support from Spanish and Portuguese-speaking nations and warm weather enthusiasts everywhere. If Spain hadn't hosted before, this bid might well be the favorite, despite the co-host limitation. There's a decent shot that this bid gets to the final round of two and the English (or Russians) swing to support it to block their archrival. If so, it could win.


Will world soccer be coming to Red Square?


Bottom Line: The favorite but iffy

Has never hosted before and FIFA likes to open up new territory. Would be the first Eastern European and formerly Communist country to host. Offers a huge new potential commercial market. No one likes to see Vladimir Putin angry. For the historically minded, the vote is taking place in Zurich where Lenin once lived.

Disadvantages: Offers far more logistical headaches than the other contenders. Not the easiest country to get around or to get in and out of. Huge distances to travel - would there be games in Siberia and Vladivostok? The infrastructure isn't there now, though money undoubtedly will be found to pay for it. Time zone issues for Latin American viewers and in the US. Would you want to spend a month in Russia, in places called Yekaterinburg, rather than the other three?

Prediction: This pretty much boils down to how much the delegates are willing to take a chance (and/or shut out the English). It's hard to tell what Russia's "sphere of influence" is, though there have been the usual whispers that if anyone is willing to play "fast and loose" in influencing the delegates, the Russians are really the ones to watch. In the end, novelty and potential commercial payoff may well win out, but the Russians are no sure thing.

By the time the controversies surrounding this are over, this month's midterms will look mild in comparison. Let the horse-trading begin.

    Our Odds:

    Russia: 8-7
    Spain-Portugal: 3-2
    England: 5-1
    Holland-Belgium: 40-1

Tomorrow: The 2022 Cup




A Member Of