Almost six months after playing to a 1-1 draw in South Africa, the U.S. and England will again be in the World Cup spotlight Thursday. This time they’re the favorites to land the 2018 and 2022 tournaments. The 2018 race features four European bids, while the United States and four opponents from the Asian confederation vie for the 2022 rights. The same question applies to both elections: Will FIFA choose the safe bets that offer a big payday or will they choose an emerging soccer nation in order to promote the game’s growth?
FIFA boss Sepp Blatter combined the bidding process for the ’18 and ’22 World Cups to create an attractive combo platter for sponsors and television rights holders. But the grab for mo’ money has created mo’ problems. Votes have allegedly been up for sale, two members of the executive committee have been stripped of their voting rights, and the dual election has taken on a “I’ll vote for you if you vote for me” feel reminiscent of high school student council elections. With that background, the race is even more difficult to handicap
England is matched against Russia and joint bids from Spain/Portugal and Holland/Belgium and there’s no doubt an English World Cup would a financial success. But if FIFA is looking to grow the game, Russia is the logical choice. And while a great deal of construction would need to take place between now and 2018, the Russian government is ready to committee the dollars needed.
If FIFA needed a country to step in and host the World Cup next week, America would be ready to go. All those super-sized NFL stadiums and U.S.-based global sponsors represent big bucks for FIFA. And while the U.S. 2022 bid has its drawbacks — the size of the country makes travel difficult and public transportation is limited around many venues — overall America is a risk-free host.
South Korea and Japan shared hosting duties eight years ago, so there’s no reason the World Cup would return as early as 2022. Australia’s bid suffers from limited support from the Aussie Rules Football and Rugby leagues whose seasons conflict with the World Cup. That leaves Qatar as the chief rival to the U.S., and while the Arab nation started as long shots, their bid has gained credibility and momentum. The biggest obstacle for Qatar is the stifling desert heat. But if their committee can convince FIFA voters on their plans to use innovative cooling technology, they could emerge as winners.
My hunch says FIFA will pick one host from the “safe” category and one from the “growth” category. And while backroom dealings could send the votes any number of directions, I can’t see England’s bid falling short. Russia will get a World Cup someday, but the next European hosting cycle is more likely. Does England’s success mean the U.S. gets left out? Not necessarily. But FIFA is giving the 2022 winner 12 years to get ready and Qatar is a nation that would put that time to excellent use. Don’t be surprised if America gets left on the sideline.