No Soccer for Oil!

Fans of soccer and liberal democracy — I’m in both groups — were disappointed to hear that the FIFA grandees awarded the 2018 World Cup to Putinland Russia and the 2022 event to Qatar (!).  My friend Grant Wahl has a typically sharp immediate reaction for Sports Illustrated that boils down to three points: (1) the choices prove once again that FIFA is not exactly a model of integrity and transparency; (2) Qatar?  Really?  Really?; and (3) the U.S. put together a strong bid and left everything on the pitch.

I would expand Grant’s first point to darned-near all elite international organizations, from the International Olympic Committee all the way to the United Nations (though the Wall Street Journal today said FIFA makes the UN look like a model).  Where there is no democratic accountability and plenty of rent-seeking opportunities, is corruption and non-merit-based decisionmaking all that surprising?

And of course this isn’t a matter of the United States losing out to a nation with a deep soccer (or any athletic) tradition, or even to a developing country set to burst onto the geo-political stage (like awarding the 1968 Olympics to Mexico City, the 1988 Games to Seoul, or the 2008 Games to Beijing).  No, this was a matter of petro-wealthy sheiks buying a major sporting event.  Bully for commercial competition, of course, but (a) those are sovereign, not private funds in play (though the distinction is observed in the breach in the Middle East); (b) playing in 110-degree heat can’t make sense (see the problems with the relatively balmy 1996 Atlanta Olympics — and I’ll believe the air-conditioned outdoor stadiums when I see them); and (c) who knows what the political situation will be in the region 12 years hence.  Plus bribing officials and riding anti-American sentiment — shocking, I know, given that George W. Bush was not part of the Bill Clinton/Morgan Freeman-led lobbying team — ain’t exactly a testament to the free market.

Speaking of economics, though, one silver lining to the U.S. disappointment — and that of England, once favored for the 2018 Cup but finishing with only two votes — is that hosting a “mega-event” like the World Cup or Olympics really doesn’t do much for a national economy (and more often than not has a detrimental economic impact).  And while I haven’t studied the details of the U.S. bid, it’s safe to assume that whatever public stadium and other subsidies were in it — probably not much compared to luring/keeping pro sports teams — paled in comparison to Qatar’s bid (let alone Russia’s).  And so American soccer fans’ loss is almost certainly American taxpayers’ gain.

In short, the Russia-Qatar double is a cynical course of events that will harm soccer’s long-term prospects in the United States and the reputation of international athletic bodies everywhere.  (Just in time for the annual peak in anti-BCS vitriol among lovers of American football, this time with a neat antitrust twist — on which more at some later point.)

Perhaps the biggest question, though, is how will Qatar’s strict alcohol laws affect fans’ enjoyment of “the beautiful game”?