“Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.”
–Ernest Lawrence Thayer, from Casey At the Bat
The United States lost its 2022 World Cup bid today to Qatar, a tiny(and I know this isn’t politically correct, these days) Middle Eastern country with a population a fifth the size of the place your author calls home, Atlanta. The net result, while not a death knell, is a crushing setback to the US Soccer Federation and the growth of the game in this country. The emotive impact is far greater. Even in this holiday season, the one of perpetual hope, the one where a smile on a sidewalk lasts a little longer, a cup of coffee tastes a bit better and the coming New Year ensures a future brighter, I for one, feel little joy in my heart. It is hard not to recall the 122 year old poem about the Mudville nine, particularly the last stanza, and in such a recollection remember that my pain is shared across this nation, and felt, undoubtedly, by more folks than populate little Qatar.
Maybe Thayer’s words aren’t enough, in terms of analogy. Those familiar with the poem will know the opening “The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville Nine that day”, and they’ll say hey—the comeback was brave as most baseball comebacks are, but they were behind two with only one out to work with. This was not supposed to be the case with the United States’ World Cup bid—the Yanks were long fancied a favorite and Qatar’s bid, initially the subject of a funny joke or two, had only recently gained steam. It’s as if Qatar were the Mudville Nine, and Casey hit a three run homer. Perhaps that’s the trouble in taking solace, as one can often do, in a poem. Then again, there’s a level of disillusionment in that thinking. History will state that Qatar’s bid gained great momentum in the final months, and while the United States did nothing in wrong, Qatar and the band of oil sheiks who fueled the bid purchased (quite literally) dignitary after dignitary to stand behind their bid. After a series of backroom deals (think an old Democratic Convention, with all the cigar smoke but more money), Qatar had rounded up a voting bloc just large enough to overcome strong bids from the United States and fellow-English speaking nation Australia. As a result, tiny Qatar hosts, and there is little joy or music in my heart.
How did this happen? Why did this happen? What is the impact? The how is situated at the intersection of complicated and simple, as most troubling things in life are. The deep cynics will scream of oil and FIFA corruption, of purchased votes and grandiose, corrupt promises, and that will be that. They’ll be somewhere south of correct. The pure in heart, the naïve and Quixotic will say the US didn’t do enough, the bid wasn’t strong, the government backing was weak and we’ve no one but ourselves to blame. The best bid wins, they’ll argue. And when US bid dignitary Morgan Freeman missed a page in the presentation yesterday, they’d found their metaphor for US Soccer Federation failure. They’d be somewhere due north of correct. In between is the cruel reality that shades hearts a deep blue today.
First, as Jason Davis at Match Fit USA wrote yesterday, while expressing his general level of fatigue over the situation, the best bid doesn’t always win. Unlike Davis, your author has clearly, and will continue to, allow the decision to affect his mood. But it isn’t, as some of that argument suggests, or as the cynics insist, entirely about corruption and oil money either. There’s a certain level of “change the world” politics and hope involved, and that element set the stage for what happened today. To be clear: I don’t think a grandiose vision of world peace and harmony was the reason Qatar was awarded the World Cup Finals in 2022, but I am quite sure there’s a sequencing question involved, and this vision enabled the excess that culminated in American shock and sadness.
Sepp Blatter, the President of FIFA, is at-bottom, a Swiss-educated middle-aged man who your author thinks is torn between his personal, political interests and his background in economics and finance. Blatter’s view of football, in a vacuum, is grandiose and utopian. A fan of intercontinental philosophy and post World War II French thinkers, notably Jacques Derrida. Blatter believes that the world is an increasingly darkening place overrun by the dangers and excesses of rapid globalization. His knowledge-base and educational background convince him that there are threats to humanity throughout the world: nuclear proliferation, terror, disease, famine. His role as FIFA President serves as personal confirmation that his worldview is correct. How could the world not be an increasingly dark place with very little unifying hope? He sees the problems everywhere his travels take him. And yet there is a detachment from those troubles in soccer. The game, he thinks, serves and has long-served as a mechanism to separate despair and hopelessness from a game, and that, he believes, is illustrative that the common thread of humanity, the JFK “We are all Berliners” sentiment can still exist and perhaps is best located within the world’s favorite game. Soccer is a way to unify in the face of increasing darkness, against the onslaught of new global rivalries and against the excesses and violence innate to rapid globalization.
Blatter’s history as FIFA President confirms this—his federation’s choice of South Africa as host in 2010 was initially met with wild skepticism and controversy. It was a part of the world known only for the negative: civil conflict, rampant disease, famine, hopelessness. Years of Apartheid had just ended at the time South Africa was awarded the Finals, and safety and the ability of South Africa to move past the racial hatred and bigotry of its past and welcome the world was significantly in doubt. Blatter had other ideas: as much as he could without an outward display of bias, he got behind the bid. He pointed to the South African Rugby World Cup as proof of the unifying and political game-changing ability of sport. He harped on the historical significance of a Cup Finals held on the African continent. When South Africa hosted the event without a hitch, his vision of a world bettered by football was personally confirmed; his choice redeemed.
There is a disjoint here, of course, with reality. South Africa has run up an immense debt hosting the tournament, the shantytowns that were just miles from the glorious new stadiums have seen little in the way of improved social services or post-World-Cup revenues, and the country certainly didn’t end the event in the black. These things matter little to Blatter, however; they are willfully ignored in the name of intangible things like inspiration and hope. It is these things which propel us to a better world, one emphasizing common humanity. It is these things that make it easy for Blatter to willfully ignore the dark underbelly of South Africa’s experience hosting the World Cup—that classist divides have replaced Apartheid as the new South African social ill, and the Cup did very little to alleviate the tough day-to-day lives of “common” South Africans.
No, Blatter would rather drink the kool aid of his vision of soccer as global peacemaker than listen to the boots-on-the-ground account of the situation, which leads us back to our sequencing question about today’s Qatar announcement. There is a willful ignorance of what will happen in the name of a fantastical vision about what will happen that set this announcement on its course over a year ago. Forget the FIFA corruption-scandal so meticulously reported by the mostly British but to some extent largely European press contingent in the build-up to the announcement. There’s likely merit to a great deal of these arguments, but at least this author would argue those were enabled by Blatter, and as such, the FIFA leadership structure’s, willful ignorance in the name of something grander. Former USMNT striker and current Fox Soccer Channel commentator Eric Wynalda likes to say that Blatter’s largest personal goal in life is a Nobel Peace Prize. This may be true, and one of the lessons history teaches us about personal ambition is it often fosters a dark underbelly, corrupt at the least and violent at the worst. Blatter’s view of soccer as global unifier, as political peacemaker, is admirable enough. The fact that it is so bruised by personal ambition so as to become irredeemably corrupt, however, is unforgivable, and precisely how we ended up where we are today, with Qatar elected to host the 2022 event.
It would have been one thing if the Americans lost their bid to Australia, a nation hoping to host the event for the first time and the architect of what was, in the author’s view, an immensely strong bid. The Aussies hosted perhaps the most memorable and successful Summer Olympics in memory in Sydney and have a flair for the big event. The weather would have been similar to the heat present in America but manageable, and while travel to the island continent is expensive and television time-conflicts with Europe and North America would have made for early mornings, there would have been few safety concerns, plenty of existing stadiums, and an almost-certain wave of rabid fans and tourists. Indeed, the Americans who bought the most tickets for South Africa of any nation in the competition probably would have sent an even larger contingent to Australia. This isn’t to say that the Australian bid was better than the United States. As Grant Wahl writes, it wasn’t and it is hard to imagine the Americans could have done more. Even a passionate and memorable speech from the United States’ most internationally beloved figure, President Bill Clinton, wasn’t enough. And remember, it isn’t about the “best bid.” A combination of considerations goes into every final World Cup destination, and to be quite honest, that’s probably okay. What it does suggest is that Qatar was an entirely inappropriate choice.
Let’s start with the most fundamental of questions—logistics. Qatar has two football stadiums in the status quo. They’ve made assurances they’ll build more, but those are just assurances and the recent problems with stadium construction and infrastructure in South Africa and Brazil are enough to raise red flags. While it is true that there is no shortage of money behind the Qatar bid—oil money corrects a host of infrastructural ills, if need be—those concerns nonetheless exist. Temperature will be a concern too. Enter another “promise” with no weight in contemporary, boots-on-the-ground reality. Games simply can’t be played in 120 degree heat, and all we’re left with is the promise of air-conditioned stadiums and training grounds. How this helps fans moving from one place to another or enjoying the revelry of a World Cup is beyond your author, but it is all we are given from the Qatar bid committee. Speaking of revelry, there are all manner of issues on this front. We’re told Qatari hotels and resorts serve alcohol and are equipped with swimming pools, weight rooms and places to celebrate. But there are hardly enough of them and what about the folks on a budget who need to venture outside the typically plush and expensive confinements of Middle Eastern resorts? Crickets are all we hear when seeking the answer to this common query. As to the obvious safety concerns, where we’re left with the assurances of oligarchic oil sheiks in charge of Qatar that all will be well. Americans and British folks in particular are always at risk when the travel to the Middle East. Ditto the Jews and potential Israeli contingent. It is true that Qatar is on-paper an American ally (I’ll spare you commentary on this absurdity), but twenty-three young American men and whatever fans brave the trip will probably experience perpetual fear in Qatar, which is the opposite of what the Finals are supposed to be about. The politics of Qatar are oligarchic yet authoritarian, stable yet constantly at risk in the region of the world most at risk to immediate political turbulence and flashpoint conflict. We can’t be sure what to expect twelve years from now. As individuals, we aren’t even certain to be here. But we know because history teaches that those of us blessed to be around could be headed to an entirely different nation than the one awarded the 2022 World Cup today. That concern alone should have been enough to forestall Blatter’s choice, but willful ignorance, and of course, the compelling wallets of oil sheiks, was enough to overcome these typically deadly bid deficiencies. And that is enough to create an absence of joy, even if only for a few days, in this author’s heart.
Somewhere in the small, deep corners of Sepp Blatter’s heart, there is likely a vision of Qatar hosting and the world’s view of the Middle East and perhaps the Middle East’s view of itself, changing for the better. Peace and diplomatic discussion, moderate reform, all generated by a game. One wonders if he read too much into Franklin Foer’s wonderful “How Soccer Explains the World”, and somehow thought that Foer’s argument about secular nationalism providing a hope, through soccer, for the globe against rising Islamic radicalism could apply on an international scale if the tournament were awarded to Qatar. There can be little doubt that this was the bill of goods, the ruse the Qatar bid committee and the powerful oil sheiks behind it were selling as they purchased dignitary after dignitary, vote after vote. If so, I’d remind him that while the Iranian football revolution of 1997 did lead to some moderate reforms for women in Iran—the nation currently is more oriented towards radicalism and violence than reform, more situated towards repression than the one that featured women in powerful societal positions under the clerics.
Qatar, with a long history ofhuman rights abuses, can’t speak too proudly about moderate reform. Forget that it is illegal to be drunk in public, as was often tweeted by angry American fans today. That’s illegal in the United States too. Remember other things, important things, like the fact that for a women to work in Qatar she has to register with a government agency. If she doesn’t, she can be imprisoned for most her life. The laws governing women and their behavior in that country are so repressive they make Apartheid look like a Long Island clambake. Remember that before you wax poetic about the transformative potential of soccer and its ability to be a vehicle for secular nationalism and modern reform. We should all remember, and we should all protest, because in the end, Sepp Blatter forgot, partly in the name of an overambitious, personal utopian vision. And as Yanks Are Coming co-founder Jon Levy put it earlier today, no, “the complimentary oil tanker perhaps delivered to Blatter’s front door didn’t hurt as ‘a message of good will’ either…a billion dollars or Euros goes a long way in this economy.” He’s right, and it is a shame Blatter, the voting blocs, and FIFA as a federation forgot. South Africa’s bid, and the tournament it held, whatever the financial distress, at least had an honest and good-intentioned face in Nelson Mandela behind its message of hope and inspiration. Qatar’s had billions of dollars and oil sheiks. Heck, even Russia 2018 has its upside: it can demonstrate how far Russia has come since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Sarah Palin can watch from her house. But Qatar purchasing a World Cup finals, that thing that comes along only 20 or so times in one’s life if they are lucky, on the back of a flawed, willfully ignorant bit of personal ambition? Well, that’s enough to buy the joy right out of a great many hearts.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.