The big losers of last week's announcement for the Fifa World Cup hosts were England and the Holland-Belgium combination for 2018, which went to Russia, and the USA and Australia for 2022, which was handed to a small, dusty oil emirate called Qatar.
Experts, politicians, and pundits were vocal this weekend in expressing their shock and disappointment. Even US president Barack Obama weighed in to bemoan the “wrong decision” of the secretive, corrupt world football body.
England thought it had 2018 in the bag, having made a range of undisclosed offers to voting members of Fifa, including a friendly match in Thailand which was promptly called off. It is understandably bitter at not getting value for its money. It would also have been fun for the rest of us were the game to go home in 2018. England has world-class facilities, a central location, excellent transport, relatively short distances between venues, and it is blowing a fortune looted from taxpayers on the London Olympics in 2012 anyway. Its national league is arguably the best in the world. It seemed a good choice.
Similar arguments go for Holland and Belgium, which have never hosted a World Cup, despite contributing some of the world's most entertaining football and most dedicated fans.
Likewise, one might have thought that both the US and Australia were in with a very good chance. Most of the tourists attending the 2010 World Cup in South Africa were American. Its team, like that of Australia, has played impressive football in recent years. Hosting the World Cup would have been a fillip (no pun intended) for either country in their determined quest to build the game's popularity against strong competition from other sports.
If Russia was a strange choice, with its great distances and cold climate, the choice of Qatar was, frankly, astonishing. Its bid was held to be technically inadequate, its football team has plummeted to an all-time low of 133 in the Fifa/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and nobody besides a few oil company officials and diplomats even know where it is.
However, veteran journalist and Labour Party spin doctor Alistair Campbell hit the nail on the head when he wrote that Fifa has a lot more in common with the countries it selected than with the countries that lost out.
Russia is riddled with corruption, and much of its economy is controlled by a small oligarchy with close ties to the government. It ranks 143rd on the economic freedom scale published by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, out of 179 countries. Qatar is a theocratic dictatorship in which the head of state, the head of the government and the head of the army are the same person. It does better on economic freedom, ranking 39th, but neither come close to the rankings of 3, 8, 11 and 15 achieved by Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, respectively.
In terms of press freedom, as Campbell notes, the same holds true. Many of the 11 bidders ranked in the single digits, and none ranked worse than 42nd in the world, except Qatar at 121 and Russia at 140.
Now consider how Fifa behaved when South Africa hosted the World Cup. Although our country did a splendid job, the high-handed, rapacious and authoritarian approach of Fifa offended almost everyone.
And it's not just that it's a profit-driven corporation. It's much worse than that. Fifa conducts its business as if it were a sovereign state. It negotiates directly with governments, and demands special laws that grant it rights and privileges that ordinary citizens do not have. It was even able to command our police force to do its bidding in its zealous campaign against so-called ambush marketing.
By means both fair and foul, it tried to prevent anyone outside the tight Fifa circle from deriving any benefit from the tournament at all. I have yet to hear anyone in the tourism and hospitality sector – even among those who were booked full – say a good word about Fifa. Those who did get business did so by agreeing to extortionate commissions and onerous contract conditions, but most were simply frozen out by rapacious licence fees and draconian law enforcement.
Meanwhile, Fifa's much ballyhooed contribution to football development proved to be mere window-dressing. It contributed a pittance, while the bulk of investment in infrastructure was borne by the tapayers of the host country. Thanks in part to Fifa's demand for pleasant television images that did not involve too much poverty, the infrastructure was ill-directed in light of South Africa's broader socio-economic needs.
And even the pittance in revenue-share that Fifa promised to host cities has yet to be paid, according to recent media reports.
South Africa bent over for Fifa, and not backwards either.
Now imagine the same happening in the United States or England. Imagine if journalists and columnists with a thousand times the audience of my own columns were to call for Fifa boycotts, or challenge the manner in which they take over host countries and infringe on the liberties of its citizens. Instead of being able to get away with judiciously ignoring the few voices that spoke up about how Fifa exploited South Africans, it would face a global storm of protest and a public relations nightmare.
Much better, then, to hold the World Cup in countries that share Fifa's love for authoritarian rule. Much better to host it somewhere without a free press, where corruption and autocratic control of the economy go unremarked as standard operating procedure.
Campbell is quite correct. Fifa has much more in common with Russia and Qatar than with the free countries that lost out to the secretive machinations of its corrupt voting process.
The acting chairman of the English Football Association, Roger Burden, says he has no interest in the job any more. “I want nothing more to do with them [Fifa],” he is quoted as saying.
Perhaps the FA would be amenable to discussions about setting up a new governing body for football. One that plays by the rules of civilised, open, and free societies. One that is honest, fair and transparent. One that makes its money legitimately, by serving the game, its players and its many fans, rather than its own officials and cronies.
Either way, there can be little doubt that Fifa made the perfect selections for 2018 and 2022. Russia, Qatar and Fifa deserve each other. DM
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