8 September ~ You can say what you like about FIFA, but when it comes to arranging junkets, no other organisation has the consistency and endurance to send so many officials on such numerous fact-finding missions. This week, a delegation headed by rising FIFA blue-suit Harold Mayne-Nicholls (not, in fact, an old Etonian, but president of the Chilean FA) is in the United States to check out a few venues that are included in the US’s bid to host the World Cup in 2018 or the 2022, part of a no doubt strenuous world tour. For the media there are photo opportunities, but the delegates will not be available to answer questions. Too jetlagged, probably.
They are going to visit five American Football stadiums, mainly in the east of the country, and one actual football stadium – the impressive new ground for Major League Soccer’s RB New York that is too small to be used for a World Cup, but which would be used as a training facility. Showing this off to FIFA serves to prove that US really is developing a football culture. It does, however, somewhat accentuate the fact that professional soccer is still a stunted, limping step-sister compared with the National Football League, but FIFA won’t worry about a comparatively minor local fan culture when they’re totting up the potential income from sponsorship and ticket sales. They’ve been here before, remember, and what a nice little earner it was.
The visit, of course, is utterly superfluous. Everybody knows that the US has the perfect infrastructure to host a World Cup. When there were mutterings about South Africa’s ability to be ready on time for this year’s event, the US was always cited as the logical first back-up plan. We’ll hear the same in the run-up to Brazil 2014. You could probably double the number of teams, and the nation would still be comfortable accommodating players, fans, hacks and several hundred more FIFA freeloaders. And if you wanted to find out the capacities and facilities at the existing stadiums, a Zurich intern’s google search would be much quicker and less expensive than flying in a team of flunkies to nod politely and look like they’re taking notes.
That’s not the only reason this trip is a waste of time. With Europe expected to land the 2018 tournament, there’s a barely concealed confidence in the US that it will pick up 2022, with the only competition coming in the form of separate bids from recent co-hosts Japan and South Korea, Australia, and small but perfectly wealthy Qatar. No doubt all those countries can make a case, but ever since 1994 there’s a feeling that the US and the World Cup are a very good match, like a couple who fall in love in their 60s and ask each other “Where have you been all my life?” Just think how we could have been maximising income potential together if we’d thought to host in the US during the booming 1950s!
It’s no revelation to point out that the World Cup has evolved from a football tournament into a bloated festival that prioritises commerce far above actual on-field entertainment. Its success has long been measured in terms of revenue and the number of people unharmed, while goals-per-game statistics are at best an inconvenience. FIFA continues to make the obligatory noises about Fair Play and flair play and world peace, but these are slogans, not actual policies, and only the very young and simple do not cringe at their naked cynicism.
The unctuous but authoritarian Sepp Blatter breathed a sigh of relief that he got Africa over and done with, and is hoping that his old cronies from the seven circles of Havelange will help see him through the ordeal of Brazil. Then it will be back to cash-reliable economies – the land of the Dream Cream Premier League in 2018, and the vast, ready-built gridiron structures of the US for 2022. By that point, hopefully, he can just come clean and admit that top-level football is all about the bottom line, and not the spur for global harmony. FIFA, the United States and no-questions-asked capitalism – the perfect partners. I’ll eat my cowboy hat if the decision’s not already been made, and all that remains is to steer the necessary votes towards the correct outcome. But first, let the junketeers finish their drinks and beam their way through the pretence of a bidding process. Ian Plenderleith