Friday, December 10, 2010

My commentary on the World Cup decisions...

This story is reprinted from Soccer America and written by Paul Kennedy who interviewed me by phone yesterday.

Chuck Blazer on the U.S. loss
by Paul Kennedy, December 10th, 2010 2:16AM

[WORLD CUP 2022] A week after the vote by the FIFA executive committee to give the 2022 World Cup to Qatar over the United States and three other bidders, Chuck Blazer, the lone American on the executive committee that selected the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, finds himself in the Gulf. Blazer is the chairman of the FIFA organizing committee for the 2010 Club World Cup being played in Abu Dhabi. He spoke at length with Soccer America about what we can learn from the outcome ...

"It was disappointing because I know how hard people had worked, including myself, to bring home a result," Blazer says. "And when you realize in the end it didn't have much of a chance because it had little to do with what we were saying and more on how things are in the world, it's kind of a hard thing to reconcile."

Blazer, a member of the FIFA executive committee since 1996 and general secretary of New York-based Concacaf, says the turning point in both the 2018 and 2022 races was not anything any of the bidders did but what happened in South Africa this summer.

"In the simplest form," he says, "we were very successful in South Africa. It was successful in a place where even though we went there we weren't that certain we'd be successful. The event went very well. The stadiums were finished in the end. All the things that needed to get done finally got done. It was a hard process to get there, but nonetheless the event was very, very successful from a TV, marketing, worldwide perspective. Everyone came away from it saying, 'Wow, what a great World Cup in South Africa.' And having done it there, it gave reason for everyone in the world to say, 'We can do it here.' No longer was it reserved for only for the big countries in Europe and the Americas."

It changed the dynamics of both races, the favorites for which a year ago would have been the USA and England.

"Look, I voted for Russia," says Blazer, whose travel blog features a story on his summer meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last summer as well as photos of Putin's vacation. "England clearly had a great bid. But in the end, I look at England and say, 'What more would we have when we're finished than what I am certain would have been a great World Cup?' I believe that when we're finished in Russia, we'll have accomplished a lot of different things."

Blazer says the World Cup is an opportunity for massive investment in sports facilities, infrastructure, hotels and the like, but at least just an important, an opportunity to broaden relations -- political, social and cultural -- between Russia and the West.

"We can open up a market that is important from a world perspective," he says.

Qatar -- the first World Cup in the Middle East, the first World Cup hosted by a Muslim country -- offers many of the same opportunities.

Blazer doesn't want to take anything away from the Qatar victory. "They ran a very, very good campaign," he says. "Eleven [executive committee members] voted for them in the first round." But he feels there were too many obstacles with Qatar despite the tremendous amount of investment they were making.

"I still feel heat is an obstacle that they won't overcome in the time frame in which we hope it will," he says.

With average temperatures of 107 degrees in the summer, Qatar 2022 has proposed air-conditioning stadiums and other World Cup-related facilities, but it produced one of the memorable lines of the bid campaign, Blazer's remark to the Wall Street Journal in mid-November: "You can air-condition a stadium, but I don't see how you can air-condition an entire country."

(Since the Dec. 2 announcement, discussion of moving the 2022 World Cup from the summer to the winter has picked up steam. On Thursday, Peter Velappan, the former general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation said air conditioners were "not a solution" and posed the possibility of a European boycott. "Qatar is a nice country," Velappan said, "but there is no way football can be played in June and July there. No player will ever want to play in these conditions.")

Blazer doesn't know the answer. "Who knows? By then, we may be going around with air-conditioned suits."

The virtue of a U.S. World Cup bid was that it offered huge revenues that could essentially be guaranteed for FIFA, whose other soccer tournaments, grants to confederations and member associations and development programs are all subsidized by the World Cup. After South Africa, Brazil 2014 offers more uncertainty.

"It would have been nice," Blazer says, "to find solutions, whether it was England or the U.S. in that mix, where it would not have an issue with the incomes."

But it wasn't meant to be.

"If you look you at the votes -- one for Australia, two for England, three for the USA in the first round, a total of six votes out of a potential of 44 votes -- there didn't seem much of a taste for these places," says Blazer.

One factor that worked against the United States, whose bid was funded by U.S. Soccer and sponsors, was the extremes to which other bidders -- namely, the two winners -- generated the backing of their governments.

"There is no way that Russia could have conceived of bidding for the World Cup without the level of absolute commitment of the government, which they showed with a very forthright plan that had the support from the top levels of the government," says Blazer. "Certainly, Qatar took it all to another level. The question really comes down to, how do you create a level playing field for bidders going forward."

World Cup bidding campaigns were modest contests until the mid-1990s when South Korea mounted a remarkable campaign -- backed by the giants of Korean industry -- to overtake rival Japan and force a compromise that resulted in the first and only co-hosted World Cup, in 2002. But there has never been a campaign like the one of Qatar, the first one in which sovereign wealth was used -- to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

"We've never had this problem up until now," says Blazer.

The other factor that worked against the United States is its standing in the world.

"I think our image has changed in the last decade," Blazer says. "It impacts us as well. Clearly, our image is different, and in dealing with members of the executive committee over the last decade, there has been a change in the nature of how we are perceived."

Blazer credited the USA Bid Committee with making a strong bid in the face of the excesses of the winning Qatari bid. "You have to give a tremendous amount of credit to [U.S. Soccer President and bid chairman] Sunil [Gulati] and his group for doing things the right way."

Still, as he left the meeting room in Zurich where the executive committee voted on the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, Blazer says he thought a U.S. victory was possible. He says it wasn't until FIFA President Sepp Blatter pulled the name of Russia out of the envelope with the 2018 winner that he figured Qatar had won the 2022 race.

How Qatar 2022 bid president Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad Al-Thani knew to announce the Qatar victory at least a half an hour earlier on Al-Jazeera remains a mystery, the explanation to which Blazer puts down to how Mohamed Bid Hammam, the Qatari member of the executive committee, managed to count his votes.

"This was a very well managed campaign," says Blazer.

And at 14-8, a very comfortable victory.

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