When FIFA awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar in favour of England and the United States it was a statement that resonated way beyond the confines of the world¹s football grounds and into the geopolitical sphere.
The defeated USA 2022 bid had pulled on some of the most important levers of power in the global scene. Former US president Bill Clinton was one of its board members. So, too, was the former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
These are men unaccustomed to seeing their activities fail on the world stage. It was unlikely that, with mere football politicians snubbing their legitimate ambitions in so controversial a manner, the matter would ever end there.
To the outside world – and, to a degree, even to the most senior mandarins at FIFA – the political decision to award the World Cup hosting rights to Russia and Qatar just made no sense. At the earliest outset of the campaigning, a leading FIFA figure had assured the England bid team that giving the 2018 World Cup to us and the 2022 tournament to the USA was a no-brainer. This was purely because the amount of marketing and TV dollars these two media markets would generate for world football would hugely exceed anything the competitor bids could have achieved.
So when FIFA¹s decision-making executive-committee, populated by several who were provably corrupt bribe-takers and fraudsters, made its choice in December 2010 it required a clear narrative as to why the US bid had failed. Chuck Blazer, then the most powerful football official in the US as an ex-co member himself, took it up.
“I think [the US¹s] image has changed in the last decade,” Blazer said in comments printed on his own blog. “It impacts us as well.
“Clearly, our image is different, and in dealing with members of the executive committee over the last decade, there has been a change in the nature of how we are perceived.”
Blazer added that the reason for taking the 2018 World Cup to Russia, for whom he voted, was this: “I believe that when we’re finished in Russia, we’ll have accomplished a lot of different things. We can open up a market that is important from a world perspective.”
That might seem reasonable in pure football terms but in this World Cup bidding race, which had brought together several world leaders on the stage, higher stakes were at play. “Opening up” Russia and then Qatar in an environment so influential in the soft-power contest of global culture would be unlikely to fit with Oval Office strategy.
In the 21st Century football has begun to dominate the global cultural scene as surely as movies did in the 20th Century. But while Hollywood has always dominated film, the US has the tiniest footprint in football, something it clearly sought to address when it swung the power of the deep state behind its Go USA bid.
Perhaps Sepp Blatter had been reminded of this when – within minutes of
winning his latest re-election to the FIFA presidency – he informed the
world of his intention to appoint Kissinger to the committee he would set
up to reform his organisation. [http://www.theguardian.com/football/2011/jun/02/henry-kissinger-sepp-blatte
Kissinger never did take up the post but the former head of the FBI, Louis Freeh, was hired to conduct the FIFA investigation into Blatter¹s former presidential-election opponent, Mohammed Bin Hammam. Since then Michael Garcia, a senior former US district attorney, has been running the internal investigation into allegations of corruption at FIFA on behalf of its ethics committee.
Garcia has publicly aired his frustration that the rest of FIFA¹s ethics-committee apparatus has been slow to react to the findings in his 430-page report into FIFA officials¹ activities.
The sense has grown that there is no intention within FIFA or the wider football community to strip Qatar or Russia of the right to host the World Cup, whatever Freeh and Garcia may have uncovered.
This is the intriguing background to the news that Blazer has been signed up by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to become its supergrass. The New York Daily News made reference to how the wider FBI investigation “could lead to criminal charges”. If anything is going to make FIFA reconsider the destination of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, it is surely that.
Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.