FIFA never fails to disappoint.
For such a massive governing body that is allegedly all about promoting the growth and passion of soccer, it made a really dumb decision when it selected Qatar over the United States to host the 2022 World Cup.
Where to begin? The build up to this day, a day that announced the hosts of two World Cup countries, has been rife with ironies, controversies, allegations of corruption, and the mystifying decision to announce the winners of 2018 and 2022 together.
Even before Russia learned it would host the 2018 World Cup, millions of worldwide viewers were subjected to a rambling lecture by FIFA president, Sepp Blatter. Getting a tooth pulled with no drugs would have been preferable to listening to this imperious self-styled faux ruler drone on and on and on.
Which makes you wonder about the World Cup bidding process — on so many levels. But let’s examine why ignoring the United States is short sighted and contrary to FIFA’s mission of promoting the world’s game.
United States remains the biggest growth market for soccer. Despite the slow but steady acceptance of the sport here, soccer still struggles to grab a larger share of the mainstream sporting audience. It still ranks No. 4 — just barely — in the sacred pantheon of professional sports. In fact, it really doesn’t even have a seat at that exalted table. Not yet, anyway.
But like the ignored little brother who scraps for attention from his older siblings, soccer is banging at the gate of the big three American sports. It wants a seat in that pantheon. Hosting the World Cup here could have opened those gates and could have been the turning point in America’s embrace of the World’s most beautiful game.
The 1994 World Cup in the United States helped to launch Major League Soccer and it put the game into the forefront of the American sports audience for three weeks. It helped to inspire a generation of young soccer players and it started to generate business opportunities — big and small. With the steady growth of the MLS and the continued large numbers of youth and adult soccer aficionados, the timing of 2022 would have been perfect to push it mainstream.
Predictably, FIFA missed a massive opportunity to secure its future in the only real major growth market remaining in the world. Population of the United States is more than more than 250 million people. These people are still trying out soccer as a sport, as a passion, as a lifestyle and as a business. There were converts to be made, acolytes to convert, sneakers and cleats to sell, beer to drink, a professional league to support and stadiums to fill.
“It’s very disappointing,” said Adrian Hanauer, Sounders owner and general manager, who stood among the early-morning throng of hardcore supporters to watch the announcement at FX McRory’s.
“There were going to be a lot of losers today from countries all over the world,” Hanauer said. “Obviously the U.S. is a tremendous place to host a World Cup and I think in the end FIFA obviously saw the opportunity in the Middle East. There are a lot of good reasons to go to Qatar and the Middle East.”
I can’t think of any. But I’m coming from a purely economic and marketing perspective. Soccer is already rabidly popular everywhere in the Middle East — at least among the men. Women, of course, don’t have a vote. Where’s the growth potential? Would most Middle Eastern men still fervently follow the World Cup, still passionately play the game, still buy replica jerseys if FIFA had passed Qatar by? Without a doubt. Can we say that about the United States? Not sure.
Even though Qatar may be one of the few progressive oasis in the Middle East, is that really good enough to qualify to host the World Cup? It bans alcohol, after all. Population of the tiny emirate: 1.6 million, roughly the size of Seattle. Form of government: absolute monarchy. Source of wealth: oil and gas, including the world’s third largest gas reserves. According to the International Monetary Fund, Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world.
FIFA plans to host the 2022 World Cup in a country the size of Connecticut. And it’s going to stage the games during the summer when desert temperatures soar so high the sun will fry your eyelashes to a crisp. Not to mention that neither Qatar nor its neighbor, Saudi Arabia, are well known for their tourist hospitality. Unless, of course, you are oozing in wealth or follow extremist ideologies.
If FIFA truly wanted to grow the sport and secure its future (not to mention rake in enormous profits from corporate sponsorships and sold-out stadiums), it would have selected the United States. The world’s game needs a thriving, popular and competitive U.S. soccer culture.
Thanks to FIFA, we’ll have to wait that much longer for it to happen.