Qatar's victory in the race to be awarded the 2022 World Cup was a triumph for spin over substance and leaves a black mark on FIFA's already-besmirched name.
In the hours after Thursday's announcement in Zurich, soccer's governing body attempted to laud its decision as a bold step into new territory, a choice rich in foresight and legacy and adventurous spirit. In reality, it is perhaps the greatest folly of an organization that is so messed up that it can't help but tarnish its reputation further with boneheaded decisions made for all the wrong reasons.
[Photos: FIFA World Cup decision]
The United States made a solid push and played things straight down the line. However, it found that its guarantee of a hugely profitable tournament and a stadium and transportation infrastructure that is second to none wasn't enough.
This is not a homer opinion. The criticism of the Qatar decision does not stem from sour grapes. If the U.S. bid was not going to be selected, Australia's was the only logical other choice.
Which all begs the question: Why Qatar?
At best, the FIFA executive committee voters were whimsical enough to be sold on a dream that has little footing in reality. The sales pitch was one of gleaming, futuristic stadiums, a foothold in the uncharted soccer waters of the Middle East and the chance for FIFA to blaze a trail by embracing a fast-emerging economic power.
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Yet there were so many reasons working against Qatar that FIFA and its members managed to conveniently ignore – such as the heat, which will force fans and players to endure temperatures soaring over 100 degrees during the tournament. Or the impracticality of hosting a global event in a nation with only one major city. Or the security risks of staging it in the midst of a politically unstable region.
All those fears were magically washed away by the millions spent by Qatar on its slick campaign, which – whatever your allegiance – must be considered an epic achievement in public relations.
Qatar went all out, throwing money at star names such as Zinedine Zidane in exchange for their public backing. The spending was lavish but well directed. Clever, stylish presentations and savvy political negotiating got them over the line.
The funding for Qatar's bid came from its ruling family and its Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, a man with no shortage of cash or ambition for his tiny nation. The brains behind it belong to Mohamed bin Hammam, the Asian Football Confederation president who quickly saw an opening in aligning himself to the powerful axis of South American and Asian voters who supported the Spain-Portugal bid for 2018. That voting bloc couldn't get Spain-Portugal past Russia for 2018 but was more than enough to see off the United States and Australia for 2022.
There were understandable scenes of joy, both from the Qatari contingent in Zurich and from those in the Middle Eastern state. But there was also the overbearing sense that this just makes FIFA look bad – as if it needed any help.
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Even though Qatar and Spain-Portugal were cleared by an investigation into possible collusion, there will continue to be many who suspect that some form of underhanded dealings took place. Others will worry about Qatar's political alliance with Iran and the messages that sends. And there could be a worrying social aspect to the 2022 World Cup, with Qatari women still suffering from routine sexual discrimination.
For the United States, this is an opportunity lost. But it is hard to find fault with the bid put together by U.S. Soccer chief Sunil Gulati and backed by luminaries such as Bill Clinton and Morgan Freeman. It was clean – squeaky-clean – and seemed to tick all the right boxes, but it wasn't to be.
The Americans will probably try again for the 2026 tournament, but a revised voting formula means that decision may not take place for another eight years. By then, who knows how the States will stand in the soccer and political spheres?
[Video: What's next for U.S. soccer?]
FIFA has shown now that it won't restrict itself to the established nations, and the Qatar upset will spark a lot more enterprising bids. That means that, despite the obvious financial benefits of bringing the tournament back to the States, it is not going to get any easier for the Americans.
The hardest part of all? Second-guessing FIFA and working out what drives the strange characters who occupy its positions of power. It is a secret that Qatar figured out and used to claim soccer's biggest prize of all.