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THE BEST OF TGS...FIFA FOLLIES AND THE WORLD CUP

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

While we try to pass the time until sport is resumed, we've decided to cull our vast files of past stories and editiorals for "Best of TGS" features which will appear periodically across the coming weeks.  One of these in particular was a spin-off from our old European Soccer Weekly publication which existed for seven years into 2007.  On occasion thereafter we would revive the ESW features on these pages, and one such time came in late 2010 after FIFA simultaneously awarded World Cups to Russia (for 2018) and Qatar (for 2022), respectively.

A few notes when reading this pieice.  Remember, it was written in Decembr of 2010.  Immediately after awarding 2018 & 2022, it had yet to be announced by FIFA that the Qatar World Cup would take place November 21-December 18, 2022; our commentary at the time assumed a traditional June-July date (average December high temps in Doha are a more-reasonable 77 degrees Fahrenheit).  Had we known about the late-autumn dates when this piece first appeared, we would have devoted another portion to the rash decision to hold Copa Mundial in the middle of the domestic-league seasons, disrupting the traditional football calendar. Moreover, the USA eventually did get awarded (with Canada and Mexico for a handful of games each) the 2026 World Cup.  Also, our ESW "operative" Andy Korman has since moved to the Sports Consultancy Group in London, where he remains one of Europe's top sports sponsorship attorneys.  

Whatever, in retrospect, our harsh cristicisms of FIFA at the time 10-plus years ago still make for a good read, and all the more poignant are our many slings and arrows aimed at the FIFA Executive, which not long after this piece came under withering scrutiny and indictment, including the end of Sepp Blatter's corrupt reign as President.  

Following, thus, is a re-run of that story from these TGS pages in December of 2010...


When in London earlier this year, we met up with one of our old "operatives" in the region, Andy Korman. Andy knows a thing or two about the world soccer game, specializing in club sponsorships in his day job as a partner at Couchman Harrington, the top sports law firm in the UK. Andy also travels to most of the big international football events, and when discussing the then-upcoming World Cup 2010 in South Africa, he was glad to share with us his assessment of World Cup 2006, held in Germany.

"I really think they should hold every World Cup in Germany," said Korman, who it should be noted has probably never rooted for a national side that included Franz Beckenbauer, Harald Schumacher, or Michael Ballack. Nor did he have any particular affinity for the WC 2006 mascots, the lion named Goleo and the ball called Pille. But Andy’s observation was made from a point of practicality, and from the perspective of a hard-core football fan. "No surprise, but everything worked like clockwork in Germany in 2006," Andy added. "The stadia were all conveniently located, the accommodations and food were more than sufficient, and the transportation system was second to none. One of my train conductors even apologized for running thirty seconds late. It was like the country was built specifically to host an event like the World Cup. I would never complain if the World Cup made Germany its permanent home."

We mention Andy Korman’s observation because such considerations for fans were apparently the furthest things from the minds of the FIFA Executive that decided last Thursday to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia, and, more amazingly, the 2022 event to the tiny Middle Eastern oil country of Qatar. And we don’t even know where to begin to put this all into some sort of reasonable perspective.

Except to point out that when FIFA is involved, the name of the game is money, so anything is possible. Why, we’re a bit surprised that while they were at it, Sepp Blatter & Company didn’t get around to naming host countries for the 2026 and 2030 events. The more the merrier, to pocket whatever immediate perks can be wrung out from the many suckers (or bidding countries) for upcoming World Cup events.

We suspect that fast-forwarding the 2022 vote in particular had something to do with realizing financial benefit now, rather than several years down the road. That FIFA was even holding the vote for the 2018 Copa Mundial before 2010 was complete seemed rather odd, because most recent World Cup votes have been taken six years before the event begins, not eight years, or certainly twelve years, prior. The last time FIFA voted on a World Cup more than six years in advance was in 1974, when it awarded the 1986 event to Colombia. A lot of good that did the Colombians to get prepared; by the end of 1982, with their organization committee in tatters, and financial woes stalling construction of new stadia and infrastructure, Colombia withdrew as the hosts for 1986.

And what did FIFA do, on short notice, to get ready for 1986? Rather than give the USA, with none other than Henry Kissinger leading the delegation, its long-awaited shot at the event, the Zurich bunch kept it "in house" with one of the most powerful members of the FIFA Executive, Mexico’s Guillermo Canedo, who also happened to run the Televisa network in Mexico. Canedo’s Mexico got the bid and his Televisa the key to enormous riches for handling all of the broadcast specifics, which happened to turn into a nightmare.

The point being, however, is that the FIFA Executive, made up of 24 members (though pared to 22 for the recent voters), has always taken care of itself and the members of its tightly-bound confederation. It did so in 1986 and has done every four years since, and is now squeezing the juice from the orange twelve years hence. Whatever risks taken when shooting so far into the future with Colombia over 30 years ago were apparently all forgotten by the FIFA Executive when making the Russia, and especially Qatar, choices for 2018 and 2022, respectively.

We are not going to re-hash too much of our well-documented past diatribes against Blatter and the FIFA braintrust that has made an art form out of corruption, able to squeeze and divert funds into a maze of different shells to eventually line their own pockets. But the organization has effectively reached a point of no return with the majority of the world football community, with whom is has little or no remaining credibility. Bribery. Collusion. Greed. The overwhelming consensus is that FIFA is corrupt and is concerned only with selling its featured event, the World Cup, to the highest bidders, while sheltering profits in a variety of creative ways. The whole trickle-down notion of the host countries reaping huge benefit from hosting the World Cup is pure fantasy. World Cup sponsorship is more tightly-guarded than Fort Knox. FIFA doesn’t allow anyone even close to its select circle unless given a privileged invitation.

"For the good of the game" has long been FIFA’s motto, but with sorts such as Blatter and the crooked members of the FIFA Executive calling the shots, that label might be more inaccurate than the goal-scoring tries of England’s forwards in last summer's World Cup in South Africa. We mentioned last week of the bribe charges and other allegations that have been leveled at members of the FIFA Executive. And now FIFA is deciding to lead even more with its chin, awarding the down-the-road World Cups to Russia and Qatar.

We’ll get to Russia in a moment, but it’s the Qatar selection runs counter to almost every stated FIFA objective for a World Cup host country. It’s in the "unstated" objectives that the FIFA Executive likely based the Qatar decision.

The arguments offered by FIFA for Qatar are decidedly shallow. Bringing the game’s biggest event to a new region sounds noble enough, but even FIFA’s Inspection Committee called Qatar’s bid a high-risk one. And why not? For starters, none of the stadiums currently exist, and none of the infrastructure is in place. FIFA will argue that Qatar has a dozen years to pull it together, and there’s no doubt that the oil-rich nation has the cash to make it happen. Although they had better get it right with the proposal for air-conditioned and water-cooled outdoor stadiums, especially with summer temperatures averaging 96 degrees, with highs of 120 not uncommon.

Which brings us to our next point regarding Qatar: FIFA can "bring the game" to any part of the globe it chooses...but what about the fans? Never mind the supposed air-conditioned stadia in Qatar. What are the visiting supporters supposed to do when matches aren’t being played in Doha? Hang around somewhere in 120-degree heat? Asking hundreds of thousands of fans to descend upon a parched, God-forsaken bit of the world, where temperatures can break the thermometer in summer months is ludicrous, no matter what deals and construction of islands stadiums and such Qatar is promising.

Moreover, we’re talking about a country that has neither qualified for a World Cup nor ever ranked higher than 77th in FIFA’s world rankings. Qatar is roughly the size of Connecticut, with the population approximately that of San Francisco, and now hosting a World Cup. All of the Qatar venues are supposedly within an hour of one another, but anyone who recalls Euro 2000 and Charleroi should consider the wisdom of potentially placing Dutch, German, English (assuming they qualify), Serbia, et al. supporters in such close proximity to one another. Oh, yes, and as a nation that respects the laws of Islam, liquor is prohibited (as is kissing in public). Try convincing the English and German football lots that drinking is prohibited, except, perhaps, in the designated FIFA "Fan Zones." Which would necessitate some sort of "demilitarized zone" surrounding them, lest any poor soul stumble on the wrong side of the line. These "Fan Zones" could easily develop toxic atmospheres, especially if throwing all of the supporters together in such close proximity. The Charleroi Town Square would look like kid’s stuff by comparison. And let’s not forget to mention the sort of scanty attire that is preferred by the younger and more attractive supporters from places like Brazil, Sweden, Spain, etc. Not allowed in Qatar, either.

And this is the place to hold a World Cup, instead of the culture-rich and decidedly fan-friendly USA, which lost out in the bidding?

Who is FIFA kidding, anyway? The only reason a place such as Qatar could beat out the USA, or Australia, must have been to do with under-the-table considerations. Hard to envision any other scenario. Already, there are reports of bribes with Argentina’s vote on the FIFA Executive, with rumors of a $78 million payout made to Argentina Football Association President Julio Grondona. Expect more rumors and accusations to begin floating.

Qatar needs no FIFA largesse. It has already caught a big break in happening to sit above a pool of oil that has made it one of the richest countries in the world. Its former Emir continually siphoned off petroleum revenues for his own personal profit; his son, Amir Hamad-bin Khalifa al-Thani, overthrew his dad in a bloodless coup in 1995. Giving the World Cup to Qatar will not benefit anyone else in the Middle East, any more than Morocco or Tunisia or other North African countries got a boost from the South Africa World Cup.

Who benefits? FIFA, of course.

Meanwhile, the decision to award 2018 to Russia is drawing fire as well. There are now reports of none other than Prime Minister Vladimir Putin having secret meetings with members of the FIFA Executive before the vote. And the same sorts of rumors are floating about the specifics of the Russian bid, just like he one from Qatar. The fact that Russia does not possess the sort of free and vigorous press that exists in a place like England means no chance of a host-country expose’ on FIFA corruption such as England with its recent Sunday Times and BBC Panorama investigative pieces that uncovered all sorts of shenanigans within the FIFA Executive. With England a well-beaten fourth in the 2018 vote, it must be Zurich’s belief that the Brits and others with a curious press will not waste much more time poking around the fringes of the FIFA aristocracy.

We could not, however, hope to phrase our own contempt for the FIFA crowd any better than the consistently excellent UK columnist Paul Hayward, whose following editorial from a recent edition of The Observer summed up everything we feel about FIFA and what a fiasco has become of the World Cup vote.

"Old world arrogance is not a love wrecker. As FIFA delivered their double coup of Russia (2018) and Qatar (2022), football’s communal carnival was cast as the private possession of 22 plutocrats. The World Cup has been stolen, appropriated by unaccountable empire builders who pick it up and drop it across the world for reasons that have nothing to do with custodianship and plenty to do with FIFA gain.

"The ‘football family’ has never been one you would be glad to see moving in next door. The world governing body long ago mutated from administrating to deal-making as federations and their continental clusters snatched at the vast new wealth from television deals and commercial partnerships.

"But this is something else. This is FIFA demanding detailed technical reports and then ignoring them. This is Russian political influence and Qatari petro-wealth smashing aside all considerations of fairness and fan participation in favour of hidden agendas. None is harder to fathom, by the way, than Geoff Thompson, England's representative in Zurich, whose glassy passivity was so aptly juxtaposed by the conniving all around him.

"The frontier principle was established 16 years ago, of course, with the USA World Cup. That was my first as a reporter. I can remember the accusations of selling out, of subservience to corporations, in a land where the 0-0 draw was an affront to Darwinian American values.

"Compared to the Russia and Qatar votes, that successful foray into the world's most powerful country looks in retrospect like a festival of idealism and innocence. No one should blame Russia or Qatar for wanting the World Cup (who wouldn't?). The point is that FIFA have turned it into a version of Bernie Ecclestone's F1 circus. But the World Cup is not theirs to sell. It's ours. It belongs to everyone and no one.

"There would be no whining here had 2018 gone to Spain-Portugal or Holland-Belgium. English pique is not at play. My big hope is not that the World Cup will pitch up in Plymouth one day but that English youngsters will be taught to play like Xavi, Mesut Ozil or Andrés Iniesta.

"France, in 1998, was a return to old Europe, with glorious results; Japan and South Korea –– another expedition into a vast emerging market. Germany, 2006: old Europe again, post-Berlin wall. Next: Africa's first World Cup, and a fresh surge of unease at FIFA's control-freakery and hypocrisy.

"The Zurich crowd were embracing Africa. The township child was joining the nice Swiss family. All this, while FIFA and UEFA fines for racism in grounds remained derisory. In South Africa itself the hosts were obliged to build vast new arenas to fit FIFA's lavish specifications. In Durban, a new cathedral rose within throwing distance of the perfectly adequate Absa Stadium.

"A year on, next June, you can expect to read plenty of dispatches from Rustenburg and Cape Town about high maintenance costs and under-used venues. The FIFA spaceship comes down then it rises six weeks later stuffed with profits. The invasion of sovereign territory by Swiss lawyers armed with FIFA dictats is another scandal. Increasingly, Sepp Blatter and his pals pick countries who are desperate to stage the World Cup for prestige and infrastructure transformation. These needy states are easier to push around.

"At least it will be fun watching FIFA tell Russia what to do. Suppose –– just imagine –– the Russians did a deal with some FIFA members. For the next eight years Putin's Russia will be the boss in that relationship. In Zurich conspiracy theories were more plentiful than pralines. 'The loss of England's World Cup bid to Russia is the result of Russia not playing fair,' announces Dr Yuri Felshtinsky, who wrote "Blowing up Russia" with Alexander Litvinenko, the murdered former Russia spy. Felshtinsky alleges that with its KGB background Putin's government has a history of exerting pressure on sports mandarins.

”A question nagging at me is how Panorama came into possession of documentary proof of FIFA corruption in the 1990s just weeks before the 2018 ballot. Quite a coincidence. Russia, among others, were bound to benefit from FIFA paranoia about journalistic scrutiny.

"To have to think like this has become necessary, and onerous. Next time Arsene Wenger says the Champions League is a better competition and that international football is dying it will be harder to feel indignation's sap rising in the throat. With a failing team and a dead bid, English spectators have plenty of good reasons to disengage. 

"What is the World Cup meant to mean? The shirts, the fascination with each country: the buttercup yellow of Brazil, the dark brilliance of Argentina, the new Spain, English ineptitude, French mutinies, the excitement of pinning up a wall-chart, camper van tours, making new friends, watching games in bars in the host nation and feeling a small part of the unfolding narrative. This is the World Cup –– not FIFA. One day we will take it back."

Amen to that!



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