What the World Cup Choices Tell Us About the World

  • Share
  • Read Later
Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty Images

Qatari Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, left, and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, right, hold the World Cup trophy at FIFA's headquarters in Zurich on Dec. 2, 2010

After a secret ballot of 22 delegates in Zurich, on Thursday, Dec. 2, FIFA, soccer's governing body, awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively. The verdicts came amid allegations of corruption and bribery ahead of the pivotal vote, with English and American commentators feeling particularly aggrieved. But TIME sees geopolitical trends at work in the success of the Russian and Qatari bids.

The Fall of the Anglo Consensus
A decade ago, a U.K.-U.S. one-two combination might have seemed an obvious choice for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Besides being home to the world's most popular and lucrative soccer league, England has long cultivated an overblown sense of ownership of the game, never ceasing to point out that soccer was created by the English and that it spread throughout the world with their 19th century agents of empire. (Skeptics note that England has won the World Cup only once, compared with Brazil's five triumphs, Italy's four and Germany's three.) And in keeping with its tradition of talking up the team's improbable chances on the field every four years, the British press created the impression that hosting the 2018 World Cup was England's divine right. Meanwhile, U.S. soccer authorities have for some time been branding their country as the game's heir apparent: America boasts the largest pool of recreational soccer players, an overabundance of stadiums and the world's most multicultural fan base. But the inherent allure of both nations — in all arenas — has waned of late, not least because of recession and the shift of economic power toward emerging countries. FIFA's verdict (England's bid received a measly two votes out of 22 — and one of them was from its own delegate) is in small part a mark of that decline.

Who Needs Democracy?
Both Russia and Qatar are ruled by strong, uncompromising governments — one steered by post-Soviet apparatchiks with the tacit backing of a tycoon oligarchy, the other the hereditary bequest of a family that can trace itself back to pre-Islamic times. When the head honchos in Moscow or Doha set out to do something, they have a way of imposing their will (even if the Russian record of getting the trains running on time is a little spotty). Not so for real democracies. South Africa's preparations for what was to be a remarkable 2010 World Cup were repeatedly called into question in the face of strike threats and other logistical inefficiencies that can be commonplace in societies where dissent is part of the social fabric. The chaos that preceded India's Commonwealth Games this year turned New Delhi into a laughingstock — particularly when held up against the shimmering example of authoritarian Beijing's 2008 Olympics. With the recent boom of the Chinese and Russian economies, the appeal of a more authoritarian path to economic development and prosperity has gained some traction in the developing world. Who needs a totally free press or fair elections to guarantee a good show?

The Withering Away of the State?
Karl Marx's predictions that the state would wither away under socialism were hardly proved true in the Soviet Union — if anything, the enfeebling of state power began with Russia's transition to crony capitalism under Boris Yeltsin, which set the tone for the "virtual mafia state" described by U.S. diplomats in WikiLeaked cables. Media observers who suggested, ahead of Thursday's vote, that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's decision to stay away from Zurich portended a setback for Russia's bid clearly missed the point: when the winners were announced, the cameras moved in close on the smiling face of the Russian bid's key patron, Roman Abramovich. Abramovich, of course, is a private citizen of Russia who occasionally finds himself in London. He's also the 50th richest man in the world, according to Forbes, having amassed a fortune in oil and aluminum interests in the rough and tumble of Russia's postcommunist privatization of state assets, in the process becoming one of the country's most powerful oligarchs. In 2003, he acquired the London soccer club Chelsea and invested hundreds of millions of dollars in its success. He has also invested heavily in Russian soccer; for example, he got the legendary Dutch coach Guus Hiddink hired to run the national team and personally payed Hiddink's wages.

England's bid, fronted by soccer icon David Beckham and two representatives of the state (Prince William and Prime Minister David Cameron), garnered just one vote besides its own in the first round, vs. Russia's nine. Perhaps Abramovich's was the more persuasive presence. FIFA's decisionmaking was never exactly a barometer of geopolitical power; Thursday's vote suggests that, more than ever, it follows the money.

Petrodollars Talk
Russia's 2018 World Cup will take place in stadiums flung across a sprawling expanse of 1,500 miles (2,400 km), from the Polish border to the Urals. Qatar's will be the tiniest in the tournament's history — the country is 1,100 sq. miles (about 2,800 sq km) smaller than Connecticut. But both bids were bankrolled by energy resources. Abramovich has plowed billions of his Siberian-oil wealth into the sport, while other powerful state energy companies, like Gazprom, have considerable investments in soccer at home. Qatar sits atop 14% of the world's natural-gas reserves and, as a result, has a GDP per capita considerably higher than that of the U.S. During the financial crisis, the investment arm of Qatar's secretive sovereign wealth fund was able to splash some $30 billion on ailing Western banks, and it has a diverse portfolio of assets across the globe. A small chunk of its cash surplus will now go toward realizing Qatar's surreal, futuristic vision for its 2022 World Cup. All told, it's a far cry from the debt-ridden treasury in Washington or the U.K. counting its pennies while putting aircraft carriers up for auction.

Terrorism's Not So Terrifying
The ability of the host country to provide security for hundreds of thousands of sports tourists has long been a key factor in deciding where FIFA stages its flagship tournament. By that measure, Russia still looks a little dicey. Extremists from Chechnya and other restive territories in the Caucasus have repeatedly targeted public spaces in Moscow and other major Russian cities in massive terrorist attacks over the past decade. And those conflicts remain very much alive despite often brutal crackdowns by Russian security forces. Yet FIFA has put its faith in the ability of those security forces to keep the tournament safe.

Opting to stage a World Cup in the Arab world would probably have been unthinkable even four years ago because of the proximity of any potential host country to the sanctuaries of al-Qaeda and other extremists. Qatar, in fact, saw one major al-Qaeda attack, in March 2005, when a suicide bomber struck a theater frequented by Westerners. And it has been accused of paying protection money to extremists to avoid being targeted. "We are a soft target and prefer to pay to secure our national and economical interests," an unnamed Qatari official was quoted as telling the Times of London in 2005. A U.S. diplomatic cable from last December, revealed this week by WikiLeaks, described Qatar as "hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals." So the decision to award the tournament to Qatar is a sign that the international community no longer deems terrorism the one issue that trumps all others. Either that, or it's a vote of confidence in the Qataris to find their own methods of preventing the tournament from being targeted. Then again, Osama bin Laden is said to be a fan of the game, and a case could be made that he might be loath to tempt the backlash that would come from disrupting an event destined to be a massive source of Arab pride.