Who’s going to get the 2022 World Cup?

Who’s going to get the 2022 World Cup?

While everyone in Washington and probably most global capitals is obsessing over WikiLeaks, the sports world is eagerly awaiting this week’s big event: FIFA’s decision on who gets to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. (To give you some perspective: World Cup was Yahoo’s second-most popular search target this year, after the gulf oil spill.)

Today, the 2022 bidders — Australia, Japan, Qatar, South Korea, and the United States — are giving their final presentations in a last-ditch attempt to persuade any remaining fence-sitters that their country deserves the nod, and tomorrow FIFA will announce the winners. 

The 2018 Cup is destined to go to a European country; the most interesting contest is for 2022. Soccer blogs, which have been buzzing with gossip and speculation for the last year or so, seem to think it’s going to come down to a choice between the United States and — believe it or not — Qatar, the tiny Persian Gulf emirate whose seemingly quixotic bid to be the first Middle Eastern country to host the tournament has captured the imagination of millions of Arabs all over the world. (Disclosure: My wife’s company does some small-scale work for the Qatari government in this area.)

Unfortunately for Qatar, FIFA’s bid evaluation report rated the country’s facilities as "high risk" due to the fact that few of them are built. The extremely hot weather in June and July, when the Cup would be held is another major concern. In response, Qatar is sinking billions into its bid and has promised to build stadiums deploying innovative outdoor cooling technology and then donate them to developing countries. Doha, the capital, is festooned with banners (reading "22" and "Expect Amazing") promoting the bid, and seemingly every shopping mall in town has a booth handing out free bumper stickers and other paraphernalia. Expectations are high.

And that’s what worries me. Qatar has made an amazing go of it, and it would be an inspiring win for a region that has too few of them, but I’d be extremely surprised if the United States loses. Ultimately, FIFA’s goal is to make as much money as possible, and Qatar can’t hope to match the size of the U.S. market. But you never know. Politicians, not technocrats, are the ultimate deciders here.

One final note: It would be a great irony if Arab leaders’ sniping about Qatar‘s alleged support for terrorism and general troublemaking in the region, as revealed in the WikiLeaks cables, tipped the scales against the Middle East’s first real shot at hosting the Cup. I think the decision has probably already been made, but you never know…