Friday, December 3, 2010

Why FIFA chose Russia and Qatar for the World Cup

Yesterday, the governing body of international soccer, FIFA, announced which countries won the right to stage the World Cup in 2018 and 2022. (Brazil will host in 2014.)

Many observers were shocked that they chose Russia for 2018 and Qatar for 2022. It was the Qatar decision that was the real shocker for me. After all, the U.S. was contending for 2022, and we had Henry Kissinger, Morgan Freeman, and Bill Clinton negotiating for us (and Barack Obama sending a final video testimonial). Like many Americans, I was hoping to be able to watch a game in person in my home country, but I'm slowly overcoming my shock and disappointment enough to be able to analyze the decision.

As a political scientist, I've been trained to analyze political choices, and, trust me, FIFA is a highly politicized body. A general rule of thumb or theory coming from my field is that decisions combining material self-interest and cultural identities tend to win out. 

Material self-interest? Well, Russia and Qatar have lots of oil and natural gas money to pay for construction of new stadiums, and to wine and dine the members of the FIFA board, who make the decision. A whole academic sub-field could be devoted to corruption (or at least influence-peddling, vote-trading, logrolling, etc.) in international sports decision-making.

But the cultural identity part makes for a good story (and definitely plays into decisions, when combined with self-interest). This will be the first time they'll ever play the World Cup in Russia, and, more symbolically, the first time they'll ever play it in the Middle East. The folks at FIFA really believe that they contribute to harmony, peace, and understanding. What better way to send that message than to choose post-Communist Russia and a tiny Gulf emirate that's on the move. Integrating Russia and the Middle East into the world community? A nice image.

I love the Middle East, and I'm already thinking of booking my flights to Qatar for 2022. But as a soccer purist, I'm appalled to learn that they'll be playing in air-conditioned, open-air stadiums. The Persian/Arabian Gulf in June and July will be running daytime temperatures around 120 degrees Fahrenheit, so there's no other way to make the bid plausible. Qatar will now have to build 9 new stadiums that they are promising to dismantle and share with developing countries after the tournament is over. But Qatar insists that their approach is carbon-neutral, and won't contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. (Really?!) To keep green grass alive in that climate will require massive inputs of energy, in a tiny country the size of Connecticut with less than 400,000 actual citizens (as opposed to the 2 million expatriate workers).

This was a fascinating decision by FIFA, and all too political.

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