Qatar's World Cup Fiasco
It requires a rare sort of organizational incompetence to turn an event that’s almost a decade away into a public-relations disaster today, but FIFA has proved itself equal to the task, and then some. Because that’s what FIFA does. No matter how low your opinion of Sepp Blatter and his bloated apparatchiks, they never fail to squeeze under the bar.
How hard can it be, really, to preside over the most popular international tournament in all of sports? A tournament that countries across the globe dream of hosting, that literally half the world watches on TV?
Consider Qatar, 2022.
This week, FIFA’s executive committee is gathering outside Zurich -- would the global game’s financial overlord be based anywhere else? -- to vote on President Blatter’s proposal to move the 2022 tournament to the winter so that players (and fans) don’t wind up keeling over in the Persian Gulf’s summer heat. That’s not hyperbole: A 27-year-old Ecuadorian player died in July after playing a match in Doha. Expect Blatter’s motion to pass, because that’s how dictatorships disguised as democracies work. (Just ask Mohammed bin Hammam, who’s now serving a lifetime ban from soccer, how his campaign to unseat Blatter worked out.)
What about those nine fully air-conditioned, zero-carbon-emissions stadiums that Qatar promised to have ready for the tournament? The ones Qatar's generous rulers were going to dismantle and rebuild in third-world countries after the tournament ended? Surprise! Turns out it’s not so easy -- or affordable or environmentally sound -- to cool an open-air stadium in the desert.
The trouble with Blatter’s winter plan is that if (when) the month-long tournament is rescheduled, it will conflict with the professional soccer season. For that matter, I’m pretty sure that when Fox spent about $425 million to outbid ESPN for the English-language rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, it wasn’t expecting to compete with the NFL post-season. But that’s not FIFA’s problem, right?
Blatter likes to think of himself as a humanitarian, or maybe an aging Swiss wizard, sprinkling the magic of the beautiful game’s showcase event across unlikely host nations. This requires a stadium-size suspension of disbelief. Back in 2010, it was already obvious to everyone how Qatar was going to build the extensive infrastructure necessary to host the tournament: by exploiting hundreds of thousands of migrant workers flooding in from Nepal, India and Sri Lanka to meet the demands of a World Cup-driven construction boom. Sure enough, this week the Guardian reported that since 2012, 70 Nepalese workers have died working on construction sites in the lead-up to the World Cup.
We still don’t know quite how the World Cup was awarded to Qatar to begin with; the ballots are secret. A FIFA-appointed prosecutor is investigating whether there was corruption in the bidding process. Hopefully, he’ll find answers, but it won't be easy. He has no subpoena power, and he’s not exactly dealing with an organization known for transparency.
Blatter has already acknowledged “political influence” in the decision to award Qatar the tournament. Specifically, some European leaders encouraged their FIFA representatives to vote for Qatar because of their own economic interests there.
Politics are baked into international sporting events, and it’s not an inherently bad idea to bring the World Cup to less developed nations. (Though it is a recipe for a serious misallocation of limited resources: See Brazil, 2014.) You know what is a bad idea? Awarding the World Cup to a repressive regime in the Arabian Peninsula where the average temperature in July is 106 degrees.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)