World Cup decisions defy logic
ZURICH -- In the most bizarre World Cup bidding process ever, it was only fitting that Russia and Qatar landed the rights to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively. Indeed, many suggest that FIFA's decisions lack much logic.
While Qatar and Russia, which have never hosted the showpiece before, celebrated wildly Thursday at this gargantuan convention center in north Zurich, the U.S. and England were forced to lick their wounds. Their bids were the most solid, reliable and potentially lucrative, which made the outcome even more puzzling. FIFA, despite being tabbed a not-for-profit organization, loves cash. The buzz was that England, which presented the formidable trio of David Beckham, Prime Minister David Cameron and Prince William -- its own Three Lions -- in a slick presentation Thursday, was ousted in the first round of voting. That was later confirmed. Wow. The U.S was eliminated in the final round.
For U.S. bid chairman Sunil Gulati, an economics professor at Columbia University, things didn't add up the way he wanted.
"Can I sit here today and say these are the seven things that we would do different? No," Gulati told huddled reporters. "I think we did everything we could."
Gulati and the rest of the U.S. contingent have numerous reasons to be puzzled. A World Cup in the U.S. would mean skyrocketing revenue, as a study commissioned by FIFA itself determined just this week. The U.S. far exceeded its rivals in the areas of ticketing, media rights, licensing, hospitality and sponsorship. Despite holding the tournament in 1994, when 12 fewer games were contested, the U.S. still wins hands down when it comes to total and average attendance. Projected figures for the 2022 edition even trump those.
All 18 proposed stadiums already exist. That's not the case in Qatar, where three-quarters -- nine of 12 stadiums -- need to be built. There was some concern about the vast distance between proposed host cities, but 13 of 18 sat east of Dallas, including the quartet of New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
With 12 of 22 votes required, the U.S. finished with eight, six shy of Qatar.
"I'm surprised and most of America is surprised," MLS commissioner Don Garber told reporters. "I'm disappointed. It's not just soccer fans who took a little shot in the head today. I think it's our entire country that could have shown the world how passionate we are about the global game. We'll take a deep breath and go back to what we do every day, which is building the game. It just might be a little harder now."
So what went wrong for the U.S.? Given FIFA's thinking, it's hard to know. Perhaps there was no wow factor, an area in which Qatar prospered with its ultramodern stadiums of the future. Wednesday's official presentation to the executive committee, the last real push, probably didn't go as planned. The big names were there, but actor Morgan Freeman stumbled and former President Bill Clinton went in different directions, not shy to discuss his own foundation. The faces had to be a little glum.
"Any time you have a rehearsed 30-minute presentation, it's never going to go perfect," Landon Donovan, one of the U.S.' highest-profile players, said before the bid announcements Thursday. "I don't know if any others did; I didn't see them. But I think we were very happy with the messages we sent. I think in many ways we were reconfirming what the executive committee already knew about our country and bid. At the end of it all, it comes down to what FIFA wants their legacy to be for that tournament."
Apart from the lack of infrastructure, questions are sure to be raised about Qatar's tactics. Qatar and the 2018 Iberian bid faced allegations of collusion that were never proved. Obviously, bringing the World Cup to the Middle East was the carrot. Those air-conditioned stadiums had better function, given the oppressive temperatures in June and July.
Beckham, Cameron and the Prince brought forward a convincing message, never slipping up as they sought to bring the Cup to England for the first time since 1966. They earned more claps from those in attendance than any other team. FIFA President Sepp Blatter, at the end of it, labeled it an "excellent" presentation. Estimated revenue from a World Cup in England in 2018 beat the other bidders. But even before the official word from Blatter, the look on the faces of former England strikers Gary Lineker and Andy Cole told the story.
Blatter called Russia's presentation interesting. To Russia's credit, its team spoke with heart. Arsenal's Andrey Arshavin got emotional and pointed to his chest as he made a plea to executive committee members. Russia was one of only a few bidders that presented a woman, Olympic winning pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva.
Blatter, who once famously quipped women's players should wear skimpier shorts, called Isinbayeva "good looking." Russia didn't pay any price for the omission of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. His presence was thought to be pivotal for any possible victory. And Russia's media didn't target FIFA, which wasn't the case with England. The Sunday Times sting that led to the suspension of two FIFA members and the BBC's "Panorama" expose on Monday focusing on four more members were major blows that Beckham and the Prince apparently couldn't repair.
Russia finished well ahead of Spain and Portugal.
"Over the next few weeks, I'm sure we'll ask a lot of questions," Andy Anson, chief executive of England's bid, told reporters. "But right now we'll congratulate the winners and have a drink."
London-based writer Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.