By Geoffrey Gold
Congratulations to Russia and Qatar for winning the rights to host the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups respectively. The FIFA executive committee’s votes continue the world football organisation's brave decision to take sport's biggest tournament to football fans around the globe.
The difficulties: Russia currently has few WC-quality stadiums and Qatar is a tiny country with less than two million residents and an extremely hot summer climate.
The positives: From FIFA's revenue point-of-view both winners are in time zones suitable for the pampered and still wealthy European markets that pay the most for broadcast rights. Russia, for instance only proposed a European-based tournament with no games played east of the Urals.
No doubt both countries will make a massive investment in infrastructure to accommodate the tournament. Russia's legacy stadia should have many years of useful life. Qatar has promised to deconstruct its extra stadia and transport and rebuild in selected third-world countries - presumably in heat zones where its advanced air cooling technology will have added value.
The most peculiar outcome of the decisions is geopolitical.
Russia bid as a member of UEFA, the European confederation and Qatar as a member of the Asian Football Confederation. This is important as the staging of the WC is restricted by a confederation rotation policy. Thus, at the moment, "Asia" having won with Qatar in 2022, would not be eligible to host another tournament until 2034. And yet, China continues to announce its interest in bidding for 2026.
Even more interesting is Qatar's description of its own winning proposal. According to its World Cup bid chief, Sheikh Mohammad bin Hamad, Qatar won on behalf of the "Middle East" with no mention of "Asia". HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, was even more precise: "This achievement is a big one for all Arab countries ... all Arabs will support our efforts."
And FIFA president Seth Blatter confirmed: "nations from the Middle East and the Arabic world have long been waiting to get the chance to host the World Cup."
Persian Iran will be most impressed with the Arabic tag to the "Middle East". Not.
Perhaps it is time to end the farce of the unity of Asian football in the huge Asian Football Confederation; for most of West Asia to form its own confederation - 'Sandia' - and for the AFC to absorb the Oceania Football Confederation alongside its continuing federation members East Asia, South-Central Asia and ASEAN.
Sandia, presumably, would represent the Arabic-speaking nations of the "Middle East", including, perhaps the Maghreb nations of north Africa. After all, non-Arabic-speaking countries in western Asia, Turkey and Israel, are already members of UEFA. Expect Iran to remain within the AFC.
A new Confederation and presto! China could qualify for a bid for 2026.
The worst losers are worth a look.
England garnered two votes in the first round for 2018 and was the first to be eliminated. Its football history, stadia, passion for the game and the globally dominant marketing muscle of its Premier League were apparently of little value when compared to the bids of mighty Netherlands/Belgium, flirty Spain/Portugal and Mother Russia.
Undoubtedly the English campaign had management flaws and the British media's assault on the honesty of FIFA's executive committee did not assist its ambition. After all, corrupt or not, members of the exco would hardly have ignored the accusations. Further, the resulting suspension of two exco members for alleged corruption - Nigeria's Amos Adamu and Oceania's Reynald Temarii - cut both out of the decision-making process and created issues for other bidding countries.
And then there was the vote-eve English football brawl. What possessed the fans of Hong Kong-owned Birmingham City to violently take-on the cross-town fans of American-owned Aston Villa in front of international television?
Australia garnered just one vote in the first round for 2022 and was the first to be eliminated. Its bid was only made possible by a $45 million grant from the Australian government and its campaign looked as if it had been designed by a parliamentary committee. Astonishingly its final 30 minute presentation ignored leaked FIFA concerns over its football passion and broadcast time zone difficulties and focussed on asking the World Cup to come to the “continent” of Australia “to play”. Barely a mention of Asia and nothing on the Pacific.
Unlike Qatar’s visionary, urban, sports-oriented and cutting-edge technology presentation, Australia’s video highlights were an embarrassing shtick of Outback scenery with no person in sight, a profile of an Aboriginal player which morphed into a PC history of European settlement and post war migration then drifted into a series of random sports shots, and concluded with a touristy travelogue featuring an animated kangaroo stealing the World Cup.
Missing was Australia's arguments of being an important part of Asian football and the only candidate with a commitment to the least serviced confederation, Oceania; its massive attendance at sports events; and its hugely successfully hosting of global sports events (two Olympic Games, multiple Commonwealth Games, the Cricket World Cup, Rugby World Cup, etc) - despite its time zone.
Where was, for instance, the captain of Papua New Guinea's Hekari United FC, which will represent Oceania at the Club World Cup? What impact would he have made if he'd been on stage with the Australian team emphasising OFC's support for the bid ... and how players and fans in the Pacific will be able to come to a 'local' World Cup?
But Oceania itself is a repeat offender at the FIFA executive level. In the voting for the 2006 World Cup, Oceania instructed its then president, Charlie Dempsey, to support the South African candidacy. However, he mysteriously abstained from voting in the third round resulting in Germany overtaking the South Africans for hosting rights.
This time Oceania supported the Australian bid for 2022 but was denied a vote due to the current confederation president, Reynald Temarii, being suspended. The OFC was told that if Temarii stood down another official could take his place. Temarii refused.
Oceania's record tends to confirm it has but a tenuous claim to being a serious confederation. Since Australia left for the AFC, New Zealand has indicated it would like to follow. All that would be left? PNG and the Pacific island micro-states. Time, again, for Oceania to become a federation within the Asian Football Confederation.
See also: Is Oceania a sustainable confederation? (Jan 16, 2007)