FIFA's new frontiers
ZURICH -- FIFA made it as clear as the glass walls that comprise its headquarters. It's out with established soccer nations and bidders that can make the most money and in with developing nations in far corners of the globe.
How else to explain future debutants Russia and Qatar being picked as respective World Cup hosts in 2018 and 2022, upsetting the likes of England, the U.S. and a joint bid from Spain and Portugal? When Qatar's bid team said on the eve of the vote that FIFA had a "fantastic opportunity to expand the frontiers of the World Cup," soccer's most powerful men obviously agreed.
This comes on the trail of South Africa's successful staging of the World Cup. More than a few eyebrows were raised when the African nation was awarded the tournament, a first for the continent. And despite early concerns that South Africa would not be ready in time for the tournament, it handled the event with aplomb. Crime was controlled, and FIFA president Sepp Blatter told reporters that South Africa was a "good financial decision," when some had initially forecast a loss. The sport was brought to townships that had never seen a game on television before.
So how could FIFA possibly top this double-whammy surprise? Although the organization doesn't allow a federation to host the World Cup in consecutive cycles, Blatter & Co. could amend that rule to award 2026 to the next big outpost, China, which has never hosted the event.
"FIFA are now moving forward in saying, 'You have to deliver football to the world, not just to the [traditional] European nations, not just to the South Americans, not just to the big boys,'" John Barnes, a part of England's failed 2018 bid, told reporters Thursday, looking surprisingly upbeat. "Football belongs to the world of football."
Russia does indeed possess a massive economy, but FIFA lamented its vast size and poor transportation links in an evaluation report last month. Parts of Russia are downright desolate, as its own team acknowledged. FIFA, then, must have seen an opportunity to bring its traveling circus to town in the hopes of fixing that.
Could it be that the sport's governing body really wants to improve welfare? Should we view the World Cup as a vehicle for developing football first, instead of the tournament being a primarily a celebration of the sport? Cynics will remain.
Qatar will go down as likely the smallest nation ever to host the tournament. Its population is roughly 1.4 million, around the size of Connecticut. Unless it bought a neighbor -- is that out of the question? -- things are set to get pretty claustrophobic in 2022.
What about the summer heat, you ask? FIFA overlooked the scorching temperatures in June and July, clearly wanting to bring the World Cup to the Middle East, a region troubled for so long. Zinedine Zidane, one of the best soccer players of all time, had to be thrilled. "Zizou" heavily backed the Qatari bid.
"Our leaders have done an excellent job to demonstrate that football is not just run on the pitch," former U.S. coach Bora Milutinovic, part of Qatar's presentation team Wednesday, told SNTV. "People of the Middle East have suffered so much, and this will be encouraging not only for football but for world peace."
Plenty is still to be done. Qatar, as discussed so often before, needs to build nine stadiums, which are supposed to use advanced cooling technologies to counter the heat. The 2022 Cup will resemble an Olympic village rather than have sites strategically scattered across a bigger country, which will be the case in Russia. The country must build 13 of 16 stadiums in a shorter timeframe. It has the cash. It's just a matter of getting down to business.
Guus Hiddink, the embodiment of world football given his coaching ties in Russia, Australia, England, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey, said the Russians would come through in style. Hiddink led Russia to Euro 2008.
"We talked a lot about the development of football when I was there, youth players," Hiddink, officially in Zurich as part of the Netherlands and Belgium 2018 bid, told reporters. "On the other hand, with infrastructure, there are stadiums there. Luzhniki Stadium [in Moscow] must be renovated, and there aren't many modern stadiums. But now, once they have the obligation, I know the Russian soul a bit -- and I like it a lot. They feel obliged to work, and they'll now go to work."
London-based writer Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com.