Sepp Blatter had barely left the room where he announced he would step down from the FIFA presidency on Tuesday before talk turned to Qatar, proposed site for the controversial 2022 World Cup.
On the surface, Blatter’s shocking decision would appear to be tremendous news for the United States, which finished second to Qatar in the initial voting process, one which has come under massive scrutiny amid allegations of widespread corruption.
Any sweeping reforms through soccer’s governing body, such as those promised in the wake of Blatter’s revelation about his impending departure, would be incomplete without a full review and probable re-vote on the 2022 World Cup hosting site.
“If I was the Qatari organizers I wouldn’t sleep very well tonight,” said Greg Dyke, chairman of England’s Football Association and that country’s FIFA delegate. “I think if the evidence comes out which shows the bidding processes were above board that’s fine. If it shows they were corrupt then obvious the bids should be redone, it is as simple as that.”
But before American soccer fans start planning their tailgate menus and readying to welcome the world in seven years, it is worth considering that in the twisted world of FIFA nothing is ever quite as it seems.
If Qatar is indeed stripped of its hosting privileges, the U.S. would not be an automatic selection or even necessarily a favorite going into the re-vote.
While bookies installed Prince Ali of Jordan and Michel Platini, head of Europe’s UEFA confederation, as early favorites to replace Blatter, the most powerful man in the game right now might be someone that most soccer fans have never heard of.
Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah of Kuwait, a former oil magnate, could hold the keys to the FIFA kingdom, should he wish to use them. Sheikh Ahmad held the muscle behind Asia’s voting bloc in the FIFA presidential election, which re-elected Blatter on Firday ahead of his only challenger, Jordan’s Prince Ali.
If Sheikh Ahmad chose to run for FIFA presidency, he would immediately become a front runner, with Asia’s voting power behind him and the African nations loath to appoint a European candidate.
The only thing that may stop him is that he is also thought to be a leading candidate to become a future president of the International Olympic Committee — he is currently chief of the Olympic Council of Asia — and enjoys strong political support.
So how does this affect the U.S. and whether a World Cup would come back to these shores for the first time since 1994?
Whether Sheikh Ahmad runs for the FIFA presidency or merely opts to wield his power behind the scenes, he has made it clear that even if the 2022 tournament was to be moved from Qatar, he would want it to remain in the Middle East.
An alternative would be the United Arab Emirates, with its major international cities ofDubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah having greater infrastructure in place than Qatar’s capital, Doha.
If a Middle Eastern alternative was not feasible, then Sheikh Ahmad would prefer for the tournament to remain within the Asian confederation at the very least, which includes potential hosts such as Japan or Australia.
However, all is not lost for the Americans. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati is in a strong position to gain support within the CONCACAF confederation that governs soccer in Central, North America and the Caribbean. According to the Wall Street Journal, Gulati is on a three-man committee that has been running the confederation since former president Jeffrey Webb was arrested as part of the Department of Justice 47-count corruption indictment opened against 14 officials last Wednesday.
If Gulati could control a CONCACAF bloc that supported a 2022 World Cup that remained in Asia, that could be parlayed into support for a U.S. 2026 bid.
Furthermore, in a political sense, given the powerful involvement of the U.S. legal authorities, the perception that the U.S. has wrestled away a World Cup from an Arab nation may not play well.
Gulati is keeping his cards close to his chest, perhaps wisely during these fraught times within soccer’s circles of power.
Gulati released a simple statement on Tuesday, insisting Blatter’s resignation was an “exceptional and immediate opportunity for positive change within FIFA.”
Soccer politics will soon have a new, hopefully cleaner, face. That much is certain. How quickly the sport’s primary showpiece returns to the United States remains to be seen. (Courtesy USA Today)