ZURICH – Picture soccer fans partying where tanks and missiles paraded on Red Square in the Cold War’s darkest days. Imagine high-tech air-conditioned stadiums chilled so players and spectators don’t keel over in the sweltering desert heat of the Middle East.
For all the allegations of corruption and rigged voting that have been leveled lately against FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, the much-maligned group certainly has a taste for adventure in taking the World Cup to the uncharted lands of Russia in 2018 and tiny but oil-wealthy Qatar in 2022.
FIFA could have played it safe by going to the ready-built stadiums of the United States or to the sport’s motherland of England. But the desire of FIFA’s all-powerful, 74-year-old president, Sepp Blatter, to carry soccer and its considerable influence to promising and largely untapped markets won the day.
“We go to new lands,” said Blatter, who will seek another four-year term in June.
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Russia and Qatar are not without risk for FIFA – although with reserves of $1 billion and the sport wealthier and more popular than ever, it can afford a gamble or two.
In awarding two World Cups at the same time, FIFA aims to give itself more stable and long-term revenues from the tournament that underpins its wealth. It also means Blatter’s influence will outlive his presidency.
But it also leaves him and the 21 other VIPs on FIFA’s executive committee open to suspicions that bidding nations might have colluded to secure their votes. The committee members voted behind closed doors and were furiously lobbied by statesmen, sheiks, sports stars and Britain’s Prince William.
In the end, the U.S. promises of record profits and ticket sales couldn’t match the novelty of Qatar and the prospect for FIFA of its first World Cup in the Middle East.
Qatar, which countered fears of oppressive summer heat by promising that stadiums, training venues and areas for fans to party will be cooled with solar-powered air conditioning, beat the U.S. in the final vote, 14-8.